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Toronto International Film Festival

Oh man, am I tired.

As if moving apartments and working a killer 9-to-5 isn’t a handful for early September, here I am covering the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Not that I’m complaining, mind you. As many of you already know, this city is a cinephile’s wet dream, a town where a cornucopia of cinematic fellatio awaits you at every corner, stroking your celluloid desires with everything from indie hits to obscure foreign fare. The centerpiece of this silver screen Gotham is an annual festival that puts Cannes and it’s paparazzi-fucking to shame. Toronto’s fest is, and always will be, about the films, and as usual, this year’s lineup was a cut above. With the Academy’s move of the Oscars from April to late February, the TIFF moved another notch forward in prominence, marking it as the tentpole event for studios yearning to market their Oscar fare and local and international producers looking to hock their hidden gems. After 10 glorious days wolfing down cholesterol-jacking snacks in dark theatres, I’ve amassed a list of the films to see and the films to flee from this year’s fest, most of which will be released later this year for your own consumption. Enjoy.

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Rabbit-Proof Fence

Both gifts are clearly exhibited in the first of two Noyce releases this year, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” (the other being “The Quiet American”). Fence, the story of three young Aboriginal girls fleeing their captors in 1930s Australia, is both a character study of will and courage and a photographic essay of the country’s overpowering environment. Noyce, who has climbed the ranks of American cinema with edgy political thrillers like “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games”, clearly changes gears with this return to his native soil, trading big-budget Hollywood fare for an exploration of a brutal truth swept under the proverbial rug.

To many, Australia is the sunny land down under, surrounded by white beaches and sandy surf, but the country is mainly a dry, arid desert with choking temps and a vastness that has swallowed many travelers whole. From the film’s first beat, DOP Chris Doyle’s wide-angle camera blinds the viewer with the open, yellow wasteland that is the setting for most of the story, and a character in and of itself.

From the onset, we meet the film’s three protagonists – Molly, Daisy and Gracie, three young Aboriginal girls living with their family on a reserve in Northern Australia. The girls are half-cast, a mixed race of aboriginal and European descent which flourished as foreign settlers began traveling through the vast Australian countryside. Unbeknownst to them, a special committee has been set up to contain this mixing, headed by A. O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines (Kenneth Branagh). Neville, who is as well-meaning as he is ignorant, decrees that all half-cast children be placed on a special reserve where they can be civilized and assimilated into white culture.

Without notice, the girls are snatched from their families and taken 2000km away into the Western outback, forced to take part in this “social education,” where life is sufficient but devoid of the love and affection they had at home. Molly, the oldest of the girls, takes matter into her own hands when she decides to escape, dragging the younger girls with her. The girls’ only hope of finding their way home is to follow a mesh rabbit-proof fence that crisscrossed the country and divided it from north to south.

Noyce arms his protagonists with only their wits and a deep-seeded desire to find their way back, but we know the girls also have a natural instinct for the land around them. Their seemingly impossible journey is both a battle against these harsh surrounds and a test of their own wills and mental strength.

Noyce is wonderful at constructing shadow narratives, masking this simple homeward bound plotline with a bold and daring commentary on his country’s evil past. The girls are a small part of a shockingly colossal population called “the lost generation,” a people who were virtually wiped out through a slow but determined cultural genocide. The result is a nation largely reeling from an identity crisis, attempting to incorporate immigration into its modern policies but refusing to come to terms with its native beginnings. Noyce and screenwriter Christine Olsen confront these demons head-on and manage to create an entertaining and evocative story all the same.

Where the film ultimately fails is in its characterization of the three girls, who are empowered with a sense of courage and determination but no critical transformation by the film’s end. Missing in this simple tale is a definitive character arc that is the crux of any story that spends most of it’s time with its protagonists. The result leaves the audience educated but not moved, an element that tarnishes a near-perfect film.

Noyce receives full marks for taking his camera to a place rarely visited, of shattering a nation’s rose-colored glasses and blasting the doors off a closet filled with ugly monsters. One only wishes he would have spent a little more time working on his character development before tackling the demons ahead.

Rating: B

Punch-Drunk Films & Ebertgate: A Toronto Int’l Film Fest Wrap

The curtains have finally dropped on the 27th Toronto International Film Festival, considered by many, myself included, as one of the best editions ever. After an exhausting 10-day celluloid bash which featured 345 films, 180 of them world and North American premieres, from 50 countries, my retinas have closed down while caffeine has found a permanent home in my body.

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Waking Life

“I want it to sound rich and maybe almost a little wavy, due to being slightly out of tune,” he says. “I think it should be slightly detached.”

The musician hits it on the nail. For the next hour and a half, slightly detached and completely opulent, “Waking Life” rolls our mainstream cinematic perceptions into a tightly packed joint and smokes them, stopping to enjoy every inhalation along the way.

The film follows, literally, the erratic journey of a young man as he stumbles through a dreamlike world, never sure into what state of consciousness he is entering or what level of reality he will submerge from. His initial claustrophobia gives way to a lucid understanding that his grasp of this illogical state is actually empowering him to pursue an acute awareness of deeply complex philosophical and existential polemics that could never come to comprehension in his waking life. Slowly, he begins to realize the physical act of ‘waking’ offers little in terms of intellectual consciousness while the stirring to life in his dream truly wakes him up. As a little girl points out in the first scene, dream is destiny.

As a viewer, the enjoyment is twofold. Aurally, Linklater opens up a spectrum rarely used by filmmakers in this day of popcorn cinema by infusing each spoken word with cyclical significance. Characters don’t merely speak for the purpose of forward communication; they contemplate and analyze a myriad of universal truths and possibilities for the sake of exploring them later. In this way, the script moves forward by not moving at all, at times relishing its eclectic rhythm and broken narrative form. Suddenly, you are aware of sound in a completely new way – each syllable has a color of its own, each word its own shape.

This is the second and perhaps more important outcome of experiencing “Waking Life.” Much like the mystified protagonist of the film, the viewer is forced to re-negotiate how s/he experiences the aesthetic before them, be it life, dream or a moving picture. From its bold use of rotoscopic animation, which perfectly creates that on-the-fence reality (it looks real and fake at the same time), to its insistence on visual inconsistencies (objects change shape and color at will), the universe of “Waking Life” is one you haven’t been to before. This makes it a unique experience at a time when experiencing films has largely depreciated into formulaic crud.

“Waking Life” brings Linklater back to his roots. Since “Slacker,” the Austin auteur has stumbled from pothead piece (“Dazed and Confused”) to mainstream drivel (“Before Sunrise”), but Waking puts all the pieces back together. Free from cinematic constraints, both in sight and sound, “Waking Life” manages to float by slightly detached and completely out of tune, and the result is one hell of a trip.

Before you ask, let me touch briefly on the weed-worthiness of the film. Stoners will find this as compelling a toke-trip as “2001” or “Wizard of Oz” but whereas those films get better with pot, “Waking Life” is simply just as good without it. Don’t get me wrong – once this puppy hits DVD, bring it home, turn out the lights, and puff away, but on the big screen, it might be worth tuning in and staying afloat. Just the same, the concessions should see some line-ups.

Rating: A

Spotlove Closes Toronto

The end of the 26th annual Toronto International Film Festival was really an end to an unexpected and shocking week. Already subdued from last year’s anniversary festivities, this year’s fest was more a celebration of the films rather then a red-carpet rollout for the stars. After the horrific events of Sept. 11 unfolded, that motto was solidified. After one day of cancellations, the festival rolled on, acting as a beacon of perseverance in the face of tragedy. As festival director Piers Handling put it, “we found solace in each other, occasionally losing ourselves in film.”

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