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From burqas to bunnies: a second dose of Toronto



Here's the dirt on the second half of the Toronto International Film Festival, which just ended Saturday (September 13) evening.

The Good

The Brown Bunny: Vincent Gallo's notorious road-trip flick, which was booed out of Cannes this past May (it was an unfinished print that ran 30 minutes longer than the final version screened here), is a hypnotic story about a motorcycle racer who has a thing for women named after flowers. It's full of dreamy, reflective moments with carefully chosen music and, as advertised, it ends with Gallo (Buffalo '66) getting an actual blow job from Chloë Sevigny. The thing is, if Bunny was an Abbas Kiarostami film about a dusty Iranian traveling thousands of miles, people would be falling all over themselves to praise it. But that still doesn't explain the hummer. Release date: TBA.

            Osama: If you're into watching films that will make you want to go home and kill yourself (and who isn't, really?), you won't want to miss this tragic picture, the first to be made in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The story, very similar to the Afghans-working-in-Iran film Baran, is about a young girl who is forced to chop off her hair, ditch her burqa, and pretend she's a boy in order to earn money to feed her family (her male relatives are all dead from the various wars). The girl, who takes on the name Osama, is adorable and was found begging on the street when writer-director Siddiq Barmak cast his film. See it at the High Falls Film Festival this November. Release date: 2004

            Shattered Glass: What's this? A biopic that's actually compelling? Billy Ray's directorial debut tells the real-life story of Stephen Glass, the young reporter from The New Republic who was caught making up stories in 1998 (way before Jayson Blair made it fashionable again). Hayden Christensen plays the ass-kissing, self-effacing Glass, but the film is stolen by the understated performance of Peter Sarsgaard, who plays the editor that slowly uncovers the clues. Hank Azaria turns up as Glass's original editor, Michael Kelly, who later died covering Operation Iraqi Freedom. Release date: October 31 (limited).

            Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself:Italian for Beginners writer-director Lone Scherfig returns to Toronto with this non-Dogme offering (though it was co-written by Dogme mastermind Anders Thomas Jensen) which, despite its title, is a very effective romantic comedy of sorts. Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is perhaps the world's worst nursery school employee and --- yes --- he has a penchant for attempting suicide at every given opportunity. But Wilbur has undergone a lot of recent changes in his life, including the death of his father, the inheritance of a used bookshop, and the beginnings of a crush on his devoted brother's new wife (Shirley Henderson). It only begins to falter at the end, but still one of my top five festival picks. Release date: October 24 (limited).

            Zatoichi: Just before this festival started, writer-director-editor-star Takeshi Kitano (inadvertently best known in this country for hosting the hysterically dubbed Spike TV show Most Extreme Elimination Challenge) took home Best Director honors from the Venice fest for his take on the legendary Japanese character Zatoichi, and in Toronto he added the People's Choice Award. Unless you watch the Independent Film Channel on Saturday mornings, you may not be familiar with Zatoichi, a blind, gambling swordsman-masseur who promises to be a hundred times more entertaining than that midget Tom Cruise and his samurai character due in theatres later this year. Kitano's version is more like a Three Stooges feature, only with cross-dressing and a high blood budget. Release date: TBA.

The bad

Danny Deckchair: The closing-night gala is one of those broad comedies that plays really well among the tragedies and dramas of big festivals but then gets a tepid response in the harsh light of reality. It's about a directionless Aussie (Rhys Ifans) who ties a bunch of big helium-filled balloons to a deckchair and flies away from his attention-starved girlfriend (Justine Clarke). When he lands in a remote town and falls in love with its lovely meter maid (Miranda Otto), Danny refuses to go back. So light, it could take off on a deckchair of its own. Release date: March 2004.

            I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The idea of re-teaming actor Clive Owen with his Croupier director Mike Hodges had people lined up around the block, but I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (which is the perfect title for a film festival) is a super-slow revenge tale. I don't ordinarily mind super-slow revenge tales, so long as the actual revenge part at the end makes up for it... and here it doesn't. Owen is a gangster turned mountain man who returns home to find his small-time drug-dealing brother (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) has been brutally raped by Malcolm McDowell. A little like The Limey, only not nearly as good. Release date: TBA.

The painfully mediocre

The Boys from County Clare: The Irish equivalent of Danny Deckchair --- a slight, occasionally clunky crowd-pleaser about two estranged brothers (Bernard Hill and Colm Meaney) competing against each other in a Ceili band competition. The premise is straight out of Storytelling 101, complete with one member of Meaney's Liverpool crew (Shaun Evans) falling hopelessly and immediately in love with a fiddler from Hill's County Clare band (Andrea Corr). For some reason, however, the whole thing is made palatable thanks to that crazy Irish charm. Release date: TBA.

            Grimm: Frenchman François Ozon's Criminal Lovers was a violent take on Hansel and Gretel, while Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam's Grimm opts to tell the beloved tale in a dark yet slapstick vein. Jacob (Jacob Derwig) and sister Marie (Halina Reijn) are left in the woods by their parents and are forced to fend for themselves in a world of bear traps, evil surgeons, and ghost towns. Before you know it, Jacob is covered in spoiled eggnog and windshield wiper fluid, which is actually pretty close to how most of my crazy adventures end, too. Definitely for the more adventurous viewers. Release date: TBA.

            Veronica Guerin: Toronto premiered a film about the life of groundbreaking newspaper reporter Veronica Guerin a few years ago (When the Sky Falls with Joan Allen went straight to Showtime and didn't use real names). In this slightly flashier and more manipulative take on the story, Cate Blanchett plays Guerin, who risked life and limb to uncover the truths about the drug trade in mid-'90s Ireland. Another ho-hum biopic and, sadly, one that gives away its ending in the trailer. Release date: October 17.

            Wonderland: Another day, another lifeless biopic. This time, the subject is porn star Johnny "Wadd" Holmes and his involvement in the Wonderland murders of Los Angeles in 1981. Val Kilmer channels a coke-snorting Barry Gibb to play Holmes, an unlikable junkie who ditched his wife (Lisa Kudrow) for a career in porn and, eventually, an underage girlfriend (Kate Bosworth). Wonderland is basically a he said, she said account of the bloody LA massacre, which was either facilitated or carried out by Holmes, depending on whom you believe. But I stopped caring who really did it halfway through the film. Porn? Murder? Jailbait? How could this be so bland? Release date: October 3 (limited).

The bizarre

Gozu: Takashi Miike has never been one to let down a Midnight Madness crowd in Toronto, and his latest is certainly no exception. Gozu is about a young gangster named Minami (Sho Aikawa) who is supposed to kill his mentally ailing boss, Ozaki (he spikes a "Yakuza attack Chihuahua" on the sidewalk in the opening scene). After Ozaki is dead, his body disappears, leaving Minami on a very bizarre search that involves soup ladles, a half-man-half-cow creature and, of course, lactation. Gozu is very slow in spots, with Miike saving it all up for his big finale, which I dare not speak of lest the nightmares return. Release date: TBA.

            Undead: The festival's final screening --- a cleverly fresh Australian film about brain-eating zombies from outer space --- was much more about being the last-ever event at the legendary Uptown Theatre, which is going to be razed to make way for luxury condominiums. The Uptown was the biggest and best place I have ever watched a film, and I'm estimating I did so around 250 times over the last eight years. But at least the Spierig brothers (they wrote, directed, produced, edited, and did the sound) took the grand venue out in style with a hilarious blend of slapstick comedy and horror gore featuring memorable characters like a former Miss Catch of the Day, an expletive-infatuated cop, and a paranoid Red Green clone with John Woo's violent streak and Schwarzenegger's one-liners. Release date: TBA.

For more reviews of films playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, visit Jon's site, Planet Sick-Boy, at

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