The Pleasures of Cinema: Toronto International Film Festival 2005

Over the last few years, the Toronto International Film Festival has become a glamourous celebrity-filled event as Hollywood comes to our fair city to promote its latest films. I’ve only been attending for a couple of years, but for me it’s still more about seeing some interesting movies that might not make it to the regular theatre than about star-gazing. Festival-going people usually bring coffee to their seats rather than soft drinks, read books before the lights go down, and actually applaud at the end of packed-house showings of subtitled movies. It’s a different kind of movie-going experience.

Mistress of Spices is an Indian-flavoured version of Chocolat. Shop owner Tilo uses the magic of her spices to help customers with their personal lives, until one day an attractive American causes her to question the rules of her craft. Like its lead actress, this movie is both beautiful and exotic, but it focuses too much on the visual and “magical” elements (It was cool to see close-ups of sesame and red chilis, but do we really need Tilo asking the spices to speak again and again) and not enough on the characters (Did the Indian boy go from wimp to tough just because he got some delinquent friends? Darn the power of cinnamon bark!) While Mistress of Spices starts with some fresh narrative flavour, weak directing and shallow storytelling washes it out into a relatively bland romantic comedy.Beowulf & Grendel pairs stunning Icelandic scenery with contemporized English to re-tell the famous pre-Viking epic as a reflection on the true nature of heroes and villains. Beowulf is a legendary warrior who seeks out the troll, Grendel, to kill him and rid Daneland of the deadly monster. But in his quest he meets a young witch who causes him to question if what he’s doing is right. In the Q&A session afterward, the director mentioned that their goal was to depict the down-to-earth events that might have inspired the original legend. Where they’ve succeeded is that all the characters, even Grendel, seem complex and human. The problem with stripping a legend of its glory and an epic of its heroism is that you might leave the viewer feeling underwhelmed in the end.

Seven Swords is a retelling of a Chinese folk-epic about seven unique swords used by kung fu masters to defend a town against the malevolent army that wants to destroy them. Directed by Hong Kong fight master Tsui Hark, the swordplay scenes are spectacular and inventive. In one, two swordsmen battle it out with two blades apiece and a fifth sword tossed between them. In another, the hero and the villain clash in a narrow hallway, climbing the walls. Unfortunately, the rest of the long, 2½ hour film is a mess. Huge plot holes (a bombardment of meteors causes a girl to fall into a snowy chasm, then suddenly they’re in an ice field talking to the swordsmaster?) and fragments of over a dozen story threads (numerous love triangles; a psychotic traitor; and a laughable, Free-Willy-style goodbye between a warrior and his horse) make me wish that Ang Lee had directed the majority of this film and let Tsui handle the fights—that probably would have been a masterpiece.

The House of Sand is surprisingly my favourite of the films I saw this year. It’s the story of a few generations of mothers and daughters, surviving and building a life in the sand dunes of the Brazilian coast. Acclaimed actress Fernanda Montenegra was excellent and believable playing three roles as mother, daughter, and granddaughter at various times. Against the stark and beautiful sand, these women build their lives isolated from and innocent of the changes going on in the world beyond. The director told us that he spent a year working on the story inspired by the image of a house overrun by sand. What came out of that work and the months of arduous filming is a unique and sensitive tale of mothers and daughters and the strength and soulfulness that grows out of living on the desert.

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