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    Scene from Los Angeles Plays Itself. in Toronto Film Festival, Days 5&6
    Scene from "Los Angeles Plays Itself."

    Toronto, Days 5&6

    A documentary that uses the movies to trace the architectural history of Los Angeles is a highlight among the out-of-the-way offerings at the Toronto Film Festival.


    Not quite midway into the Toronto International Film Festival, press are hit with a barrage of invitations looking to extend the party atmosphere of the star-heavy, top-loaded opening weekend. A must for those profiling celebs, the invites offer others a break from around-the-clock screenings and a chance to hook up with colleagues and swap information. I cleared room on my calendar for four social events; even that meager amount took a toll — I saw only four films in two days. But each movie was time well spent.

    Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto, Ontario, Sept. 4-13, 2003.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 1
    Our correspondent at the Toronto International Film Festival unearths promising new work from Germany and Korea.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 2
    A pair of gorgeously clinical works from Peter Greenaway are balanced by a music groupie-mentary from L.A. and a knockout martial-arts picture from Thailand.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 3
    Another beautiful film from Korea, Kim Ki-duk's "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter .. and Spring," shares a bill with Errol Morris's timely examination of the Vietnam War and the latest from actress of the moment Scarlett Johansson.

      Festival: Toronto Film Festival, Day 4
    Substantial female roles for adult actresses are among the highlights at the festival, including Cate Blanchett in "Veronica Guerin" and Anne Reid in "The Mother."

    Monday, September 8

    Keith Gordon's "The Singing Detective" (Paramount Classics) is an audacious retooling of Dennis Potter's BBC mini-series from 1986. More than a remake, it was scripted by Potter as a different take on his partly autobiographical tale of a novelist nearly paralyzed by psoriatic arthropathy and a traumatic past. The lead role of Philip E. Marlow was one of Michael Gambon's greatest; the TV film had over seven hours to unfold its complicated three-track narrative, interweaving hospital scenes where the writer suffers hallucinations induced by fever and medications; chapters of his novel featuring a gumshoe who moonlights as a ballroom warbler; and resurfacing memories of his tortured childhood. The genius of the work rested in how one story line flowed into, or from, another, and how they informed each other, and in increments led to the protagonist's catharsis.

    The theatrical version moves the action to California in the '50s and the present, and condenses events into a running time of 1 hour, 45 minutes. Robert Downey Jr.'s author is now named Dan Dark, and his brash, ill-mannered detective is also a rock 'n' roll crooner whose body language drips libido with every swivel of his hips. The Cold War struggle is still there as a shadowy background for the fictional detective's exploits, and the paranoia of that era parallels Dark's rants against his estranged wife. His scathing outbursts over her imagined infidelities and betrayals in turn unearth repressed memories of his adulterous mother. But by transplanting the action to Los Angeles, the filmmakers tap into a cache of historical and pop cultural allusions. And the casting of the Downey as the chronically ill antihero adds another layer of associations to a tale about facing down demons. What artistic compromises Gordon may have had to make due to budget strictures pale beside the achievement of Downey's towering performance.

    Young Adam. in Toronto Film Festival, Days 5&6  
    "Young Adam."
    Ewan McGregor plays another kind of antihero in "Young Adam" (Sony Pictures Classics), more in the Jack Nicholson "Five Easy Pieces" vein. The iconclastic persona that Nicholson forged in the '70s resembles the furious rebellion that Ewan McGregor embodied twenty years later in "Trainspotting." But the beat sensibility is there as well in the film's source material, a landmark novel by Scotland's Alexander Trocchi, who as an expatriate in Paris published Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller, and hung out with William Burroughs, Terry Southern and Allen Ginsberg. (Ginsberg called him "the most brilliant man I've ever met.") In "Young Adam," McGregor plays Joe, a deckhand on a canal barge skippered by Les (Peter McMullen). At the top of the film, the men fish a dead woman's body out of the sea. The incident makes the papers, and as they travel from village to village, the two revel in the spotlight, although it later turns out Joe has something to hide. In a former life as a failed novelist he was involved with the victim (Emily Mortimer). The flashbacks to their romance are interspersed with scenes of his steady progress as a womanizer, starting with Les' wife (Tilda Swinton). Each liaison ends leaving him with no regrets. Feelings of any sort are pretty much in short supply for Joe, who sports a sociopath's lack of conscience. Directed by David Mackenzie, who also wrote the screenplay, "Young Adam" is a thriller as cynical as it is subtle.

    Tuesday, September 9

    In Toronto, the 8:30 AM screening slots are frequently assigned to high-profile films, either those helmed by an admired director, or a commercial entry backed by a major studio. My choice this morning fell into both categories: "School of Rock" (Paramount Pictures) from festival favorite Richard Linklater, whose last two films, "Tape" and "Waking Life," got a huge boost on the festival circuit. From the clever, zippy opening title sequence on to the very last frame of the closing credits, the grins were nonstop. This was the role Jack Black was born to play, Mike White's screenplay has perfect pitch, and Linklater fulfills the promise he showed early on in "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused." As talented as these individuals are, their collaboration surpasses nearly everything they've previously done. This movie is almost too much fun for a festival, as expressed by the guy in back of me who when it was over sighed, "Well, back to work."

    At the French Film Office's annual press luncheon, the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum seconded advice given earlier by Variety's Todd McCarthy not to miss Thom Andersen's "Los Angeles Plays Itself." Going meant carving out a three-hour block that could have covered two other screenings, but then this is the kind of movie one pretty much has to see at festivals to see at all. A combination of documentary, travelogue, political commentary and art film, it defies easy classification; Andersen describes it as a "personal essay." Its concept is both simple and ambitious: a tour of Los Angeles architecture via clips from movies filmed there. (The title is a sly reference to the 1972 porn flick "LA Plays Itself," although Andersen deplores the abbreviation "LA" as a sign of intellectual laziness.)

      School of Rock. in Toronto Film Festival, Days 5&6
      "School of Rock."
    Early on, in narration voiced by New York filmmaker Encke King, Andersen suggests we can better appreciate narrative fiction films by their documentary revelations. The films sampled here range from A-list to B-grade to flat-out obscure. The prodigious assembly of scenes from over 100 movies underscores his assertion that Los Angeles is the most photographed city in the world — maybe not so surprising given that Hollywood is its backyard. But Andersen, a CalArts film professor, is interested in the bigger picture the movies present and the assumptions they create. For instance, Los Angeles is widely perceived as a company town, but only 1 in 40 residents work in the business of Hollywood. Movies set in Los Angeles not only sell stories and their mythic underpinnings, they also sell the myth of Los Angeles. In our culture, he argues, getting into the movies has become a substitute for achievement.

    A movie history timeline is explored, from when various Los Angeles buildings and locations easily stood in for locales in other cities, to when the edifices became so weighted with significance their very presence in a movie was symbolic. One of the most memorably photographed is the Bradbury Building, an 1893 landmark whose skylit atrium and wrought- iron balconies were used to great effect in "D.O.A." (1950), "Chinatown" (1974), "Blade Runner" (1982), and "Wolf" (1994). Although as a set the Bradbury's use varies widely in these films, the underlying feeling throughout is one of power and corruption.

    Andersen chides those films that play fast and loose with logical connections between Los Angeles locations; although admitting that the city is "hard to get right," he maintains that "silly geography makes for silly movies." He also takes aim at filmmakers who are contemptous of Los Angeles, those he terms "low tourist" directors — among them Alfred Hitchcock, who filmed four movies in San Francisco because he found it "more picturesque," but only one in Los Angeles. "High tourist" directors are designated (usually foreign) filmmakers who embrace Los Angeles and exploit its symbolic potential, as did Michelangelo Antonioni in "Zabriskie Point."

    High or low, the "tourist" filmmakers frequently have enjoyed a greater profile than some native sons. "Los Angeles Plays Itself" may be your only chance for a while to catch a glimpse of UCLA alum Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" (1977), sadly unavailable on video. Andersen devotes a large section toward the end of the film to unsung directors whose works show parts of Los Angeles seldom seen in mainstream movies, and he contrasts them favorably to such "name" directors as Robert Altman and Sir Ridley Scott. As it happens, both Altman and Scott appeared in Toronto with movies — "The Company" and "Matchstick Men," respectively — and during his audience Q&A, Andersen confessed he had wondered what might happen if they saw his film. "But then," he said with charming candor, "I realized we're in different festivals."

    # # #

    Next up: femme fatales and menaced women are at the center of "Haute Tension," "In the Cut" and "Nathalie."

    Festival articles



    Mayor of the Sunset Strip

    Diminutive Rodney Bingenheimer hangs out with a lot of big-time musical icons in "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," a documentary that overrelies on his pixie-ish proximity to fame and his quizzical personality.


    Memories of Murder

    A constantly deceptive detective story in which bad cops who think they're doing good work look for a serial killer in all the wrong places.

    DECEMBER 21, 2003

    Reader comments on Toronto Film Festival, Days 5&6:

  • school of rock   from Damion Hampton, Mar 1, 2005

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