Monday, September 10, 2007



Who knew that for ten days in September, a little city called Toronto is transformed into something that resembles another little city that you might know as Hollywood? While I’m sure plenty of Torontonians already knew that, this is my first time at the Toronto International Film Festival and I was not prepared for what I became witness to. You can’t walk down the street without seeing someone wearing the orange volunteer T-shirt or with a TIFF tag hanging from their necks. Of course, none of these people are celebrities despite the long list of famous names that are flying in and out throughout the week. Brad and Angelina are here; or is it Angelina and Brad? Jake, Reese, Cate, George, Matt and Woody are all here. Even Ang Lee flew in from Venice to screen his latest, LUST, CAUTION, before it went on to win the Gold Lion for Best Film, much to many critic’s surprise. That said, I don’t know where they’re hiding. Thus far, I’ve only been able to spot them by hanging out on the sidewalks across from the numerous screening venues throughout the city to catch a glimpse of the beautiful people as they make their entrances on the red carpet. I’m convinced they spend the rest of their time shuttling between parties and their hotel rooms. No matter though; I did not come to Toronto to see celebrities … except for Jake Gyllenhaal. I did want to see him and see him I did, if only from very far when at the world premiere of his latest film, RENDITION. No, I came to Toronto to see some movies and that’s precisely what I did.

My first day here was a tad bit chaotic. I was on a bus from Montreal at 9:30 AM. I somehow lucked out and scored a seat all to myself. This gave me the chance to spread out my legs and relax before my stressful arrival. It might not be stressful to you or someone else who is not me but I was arriving at roughly 4:30 and my first film was at 6:30. This gave me two hours to get a cab to my hotel, drop my stuff and make my way to the first venue. When I got to my hotel, I had two e-mails from people looking to sell me tickets to films the next day. I had to now meet someone at their house in Chinatown and then make my way to the first venue. There went my shower. I managed to find my way to both locations with a good deal of ease and before I knew it, I was waiting at the door of Roy Thompson Hall for RENDITION. People were screaming, “Jake! Jake!” as I was let in. I tried to look back but dozens of photographers and reporters waiting for their short window to get that shot, that sound bite, were blocking my view. I opted to go into the venue and get myself a good seat. I should have stayed outside. Considering how much I paid for this gala screening, my seats could not have been much worse. When it came time for director, Gavin Hood and actors, Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon and Peter Saarsgard to make their way on stage, they were barely distinguishable to my eyes. I could still see Jake swaying his hips back and forth with his hands in his pockets though. That was good enough for me.

RENDITION is Hood’s follow-up to his Academy Award winning film, TSOTSI, and his first as an official Hollywood director. He maintains both bravery and integrity by telling the story of Anwar El-Ibrahim (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian chemical engineer who has been living and working in the USA for 20 years. After a suicide bomb kills an American operative in the Middle East, El-Ibrahim is detained as he reenters the US without any explanation. Witherspoon is the pregnant wife who searches frantically for her missing husband. Saarsgard is her college friend working in government whom she hopes can help her find him. Gyllenhaal is the American operative in charge of getting answers from El-Ibrahim. RENDITION is most interesting as a portrait of what it means to be American today. Each major player represents a different faction of Americana. Witherspoon is the non-political soccer mom (literally, we are introduced to her playing soccer with her son) who does not concern herself with world events but chooses to focus on her family, her life. Saarsgard is the American who knows that his government is committing injustices but accepts this and does not fight back in fear of what will happen to him. Meryl Streep plays the woman who gave the order to take El-Ibrahim into custody. She is Witherspoon’s antithesis; she does not concern herself with people or families but rather allows her ignorance to guide her decisions regarding the bigger political fallout. And then there’s Gyllenhaal. He begins as the good American who does what he is told and does not ask questions but eventually turns into the American who just can’t take the silence anymore. Unfortunately for RENDITION, the intrigue portion of this political thriller doesn’t go much further than this. The performances are solid but no actor is ever given the chance to take their characters as far as they could, leaving an unfulfilled feeling in its wake. RENDTION forces us to watch and learn about an atrocious reality being currently committed and then sends us on our way with very little changed. It’s as though we are abducted along with El-Ibrahim, only without the torture.

When the credits rolled at RENDITION, I sprang out of my seat and bolted out of the theatre as fast I could. It’s not that I didn’t care for the movie; it was enjoyable enough. It’s just I had another one starting in ten minutes and I couldn’t afford to get caught in the crowds. A cab dropped me off at the beautiful Elgin theatre of Yonge street and I somehow still managed to find a seat somewhere near the back just in time for Ang Lee to introduce his follow-up to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I had already heard mixed things about LUST, CAUTION. At just a little under three hours, I heard the film went too long. With an NC-17 rating and rumours that some of the film’s explicit scenes were real, I had heard the film might be a bit much at times. I simply found it be unfocused. It was as though Lee could not decide the style in which to tell his story. The film is part espionage, part historical, part suspense and part love story. It is at times epic while classical or noir at others. Still, like most of Lee’s work, there’s an underlying meaning to devour. LUST, CAUTION tells the story of Wang Jiazhi (Wei Tang), a young student who gets involved with a political acting troupe that decide to up their game by infiltrating the operations of a known traitor in order to kill him in the name of their invaded China. Wang is embraced by the wife of the traitor, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) when she poses as a society lady. Before long, she catches Mr. Yee’s attention and they begin an intensely sexual and violent affair. The genius of the story is the exposition of the love’s epicenter. Lee throws his characters into it and forces them to struggle between their duties and their desires. Unfortunately, the unsteadiness of the film is distracting and almost makes it impossible for the point to be made.

While the screenings were somewhat disappointing, the magic of just being there was certainly not. I left the Elgin with all the other patrons pouring into the street. They were unimpressed and dismayed but all I could think about was what was to come next.
Next …
Part Two

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