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September 18, 1999 2:00 AM
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TORONTO FESTIVAL: Growing-Up, Godard, Grunge and Grass: Canadian Films at the TIFF

TORONTO FESTIVAL: Growing-Up, Godard, Grunge and Grass: Canadian Films at the TIFF

by Mark Peranson




By the time Joshua Dorsey and Douglas Naimer's Tarkovsky-influenced
"Here Am I" rolls late Friday night in this year's Perspective Canada
program, the Festival will have shown a total of 1377 Canadian films
over its 24-year history. Twenty features and 37 shorts screen this
year, from the universally reviled (Mort Ransen's "Touched") to the
unseen (veteran Quebec director Michel Brault's separatist "Quand je
serai parti...vous vivrez encore
"). That's a lot of Can-Con.


For most foreigners, Toronto is a chance to preview the new Fall
releases, or catch up with art films they may have missed at Cannes, but
the Festival's dedication to homegrown talent is what separates it from
being just another North American marketplace. All Perspective films
compete for best Canadian film and CityTV hands out hardware for the
best first Canadian film; aside from the FIPRESCI award, these will be
the only juried honors handed out.


With Atom Egoyan opening as formally strong as ever with "Felicia's Journey"
and Jeremy Podeswa's well-crafted "The Five Senses" -- a film I found a
proton short of an Atom (Egoyan) - being snapped up by Fine Line, the
critical mass in Toronto have overlooked the variety of offerings from
new and long-overdue filmmakers. More interest, though, has been devoted
by both international and self-hating Canadian presses to Molly Parker,
this year's Don McKellar -- she appears in three Canadian films, "The Five
Senses
," Istvan Szabo's lengthy, Canadian-produced epic "Sunshine" and the Special Presentation of Norman Jewison's work in progress, "The
Hurricane
." (Her total reaches 4 including British director Michael
Winterbottom
's "Wonderland.")


My choice for Best Canadian film -- and not just because it has 'both'
growing-up and Godard -- is Léa Pool's "Emporte-moi," an
autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young lesbian in 1950's
Montreal with an affective script, sensitive acting by both young Karine
Vanasse
and Pascale Bussières, and numerous clips of "Vivre sa vie."
(It's next set to play at the New York Film Festival).


Reginald Harkema's "A Girl is A Girl" -- title, of course, a loose English
translation of more Godard -- is the strongest first film. A former
editor (of McKellar's "Last Night"), Harkema took the tough road in
trying to update JLG to 1990's Vancouver. It falters from a weak central
performance by Andrew McIntyre, who has about as much screen presence as
a flat, and eventually becomes "only" a relationship film. That said,
it's an auspicious debut with equal moments of appeal, tenderness, and
style.


"A Girl is A Girl" easily shows more promise and consistency than the
other rookies, including Scott Smith's "rollercoaster" ("Madison" meets
"Kids" in Vancouver), Curtis Wehrfritz's "Four Days" (heist gone very, very wrong, again), and twin grunge efforts - Carl Bessai's uncertified
Dogme 95-influenced "Johnny," which answers the question, "What would
happen if squeegee kids got a hold of a digital video camera?" and
Rodrigue Jean's "Full Blast," a young working-class tale in Francophone
New Brunswick that answers no questions at all.


The Canadian shorts program also offers up an interesting premiere from
actor-turned-director Sarah Polley, whose "Don't Think Twice" maturely
deals with the confusions of adultery. Other stand-out shorts are Elida
Schodt
's Holocaust-themed "Zyklon Portrait," Gariné Torossian's
music-videoesque "Sparklehorse" (which will soon be recut and presented
as an MTV-video for the song "Happy Man"), Palme d'Or winner "When the
Day Breaks
," by Wendy Tilby and Robert Kennedy's hilarious look at a gay dating
service, "Hi, I'm Steve."


Returning to the Festival with a Canadian film for the first time this
decade is Allan Moyle ("Pump Up The Volume"), whose "New Waterford Girl"
has been met with mixed-to-positive reviews. With tinges of melodrama,
Moyle capably directs the darkly comic story of a complicated 15
year-old Cape Bretonite who seeks to escape from her Catholic
surroundings but finds life at home after all; it also features a
luminous performances by newcomer Liane Balaban. No American distributor
as of yet, but this is one Canadian film that entertains as effectively
as Australian or British whimsy, with more layers of meaning,
effectively turning the concept of normalcy on its head.


On the subject of entertaining (and non-distribution), the most
impressive return to the Festival has to be cult director John Paizs.
Last here 15 years ago with his debut feature "Crime Wave," it's taken
the Winnipeg-based cross between David Lynch and Tim Burton too long to
find another project. The Campbell Scott-starring "Top of the Food
Chain
," however, is well worth the wait. Both screenings of the alien
invasion, B-movie parody were met with raucous laughter by the normally
reserved (but always generous) Toronto crowds. Demand it in your
unsuspecting hometown.


And, finally, speaking of homegrown, Ron Mann ("Twist") finally unrolled
his long-in-the-making pro-pot paean "Grass" to a packed and vocal crowd
on Wednesday night. Framed as an educational film warning against the
evils of marihuana and narrated by hempmeister Woody Harrelson, "Grass"
is Mann's first attempt at straight propaganda; its subject is more
familiar than his other docs, and with a quite abrupt ending, one is
left hungry for more, or maybe just a pack of Doritos.


[Mark Peranson is a Toronto film critic whose writing has appeared in
Now magazine, The Village Voice, Cineaction, Shift, and Take One. He is
also the editor of Cinema Scope magazine.]

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