“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
~ James Gray
Film Essent Archive for September, 2012
The Master, auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’s minimalist drama about a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his troubled and troubling acolyte (Joaquin Phoenix), is Anderson’s first film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and it’s easy to see the stylistic similarities between the two films humming underneath the surface: Two strong-willed male characters, as alike internally as they are disparate on the surface, set on course to collide with each other. Keep the conflict close and very personal, but paint it on a huge, sprawling canvas. Don’t be afraid of unlikable, complicated protagonists.
Simple stories. Complex, textured characters. Superlative actors. Anderson excels at working in this space.
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I’ve never seen anything quite like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s outrageous, defiantly different documentary about gangsters in Indonesia who killed millions of people around the time of the overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965, making a movie touting their “heroic” exploits. Really, you need to see this movie. You just do. It’s one of the most compelling, riveting docs I’ve ever seen; I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’ll bet you haven’t either.
Oppenheimer started out to make a movie about the survivors of the massacres, filming for three years and even living in a village of survivors for over a year, according to press notes. But the filmmakers found that they faced constant dangers while trying to film the story of the survivors, and they feared compromising the survivors’ safety in the current political climate, which is controlled, essentially, by the same people who perpetrated the killings. Oppenheimer decided the answers he sought lay in trying to understand the perspective not of the victims themselves, but of the people who openly boasted of slaughtering countless people in the name of “cleansing” the country of “Communists” — which appears, in the context of Indonesia, to roughly mean “anyone who fights for the rights of workers to not be brutalized and exploited.” And interestingly, he found that once they shifted focus to the gangsters — who in their country, perhaps through intimidation as much as anything, are lauded as heroes, not killers — suddenly officials were more than accommodating. Thus was born the beginnings of the film that would become The Act of Killing.
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Elle Fanning delivers an astonishing performance as Ginger, one-half of the titular characters in Ginger & Rosa, Sally Potter’s gorgeously shot and thoughtfully executed story of a young girl growing up in early-’60s London, raised to be a free-thinking activist, who’s growing up in the shadow of the Cold War. Ginger and Rosa (Alice Englert), born on the same day, if not quite under the same star, are the best of friends, inseparable in all they do. Rosa’s father took off when she was small, leaving Rosa’s mother to raise her alone; both Ginger and Rosa chafe against the banal domestic imprisonment in which they feel their mothers are trapped.
Ginger’s father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola) is present, but offers little in the way of moral guidance or structure, being himself wrapped up in preaching anti-establishment morals and nudging his daughter toward the same rebellion that drives him, while positioning himself on a higher-than-though intellectual and moral perch to justify his abhorrent choices in his personal life. Ginger’s mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks) tries to offer her intelligent, recalcitrant daughter guidance and discipline, a task rendered nearly impossible by Ginger’s hero-worship of her more lenient father, which forever puts Natalie in the position of playing the bad cop parent.
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By far the most difficult narrative film I saw this year at TIFF was Pieta, a dark, relentlessly brutal film about the mother-love and sacrifice, by South Korean master filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk. The film won the Golden Lion in Venice, much to the chagrin of many critics and, presumably, the jury, which reportedly wanted to award the fest’s top prize to The Master, which won awards for best director and best actor (shared by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix) but was prohibited from doing so by an archaic rule that prohibits the film lauded with the Golden Lion from receiving any other awards.
Much of the first half of the film is so disturbing as to be almost unwatchable, at least by Western audiences – even those who love arthouse cinema and therefore have a higher tolerance than your average film-goer for brutality taken to its most absurd extremes. But if you can tough it out past the pinnacle of debasement and suffering at the midpoint or so of the film, where it’s at its absolute worst, the film gradually heads from that point to a payoff that does make it worthwhile to stick around for. Redemption? Not necessarily that, exactly, but something, at least, approaching understanding and acceptance of all that you’ve just seen.
The story is set in a gloomy industrial South Korean slum, where cramped machinist shops perch amid filth, poverty, and utmost despair, and if it didn’t have some ultimate redeeming value and an actual point to its plot structure that takes us through all its blood and muck and mire with deliberate intent, this could almost be considered poverty porn, so thoroughly does it glory in the miserable lives of its subjects, poor machinists so desperate to survive that they take out loans from a loan shark to keep their heads above water.
The loan shark’s enforcer, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), has blankness to him, an emptiness of light and life – a lack of soul, if you will – that’s mesmerizing to watch even as it disturbs and repulses. Kang-do’s method of enforcing the payback of loans is simple: He forces these desperate wretches to sign insurance policies payable to his boss, and when they are unable to pay debts that multiply tenfold with exorbitant interest, he coldly destroys an arm, or a leg, or casually tosses the debtor off a building, crippling him forever. In what there is of his personal life, Kang-do is hardly any better. As he walks into his small, dingy apartment, he stabs his knife into a picture of a woman hanging on the wall; the bloody entrails of the animals he consumes to feed his body strewn and smeared all over the tile floor, evoking his butchering of human beings in his work. In every respect, the filmmaker establishes that this is a man who has lost all sense of decency and humanity, if he ever had them to begin with.
And then a woman (Cho Min-soo, in a riveting, astonishing performance) shows up on his doorstep, claiming to be his long lost mother, and thus we get the first piece in the puzzle that is Kang-do: abandoned, alone, perhaps brutalized himself in ways we are not given to know, whatever humanity he was born into this world with, life has long since drained almost every drop of it from his soul. Kang-do at first rejects the sudden appearance of his mother, brutalizing and debasing her over and over again, in ways that will make you shudder and turn from the screen, but no matter what he does to her, she takes it with a calm and patient suffering, a sense of being given a just punishment for whatever her imagined sins may be. Slowly, he comes to accept her, and then to love and become dependent upon her – and that is when the film takes a sharp turn to its unexpected and riveting concluding act.
The film’s title, evoking the patient suffering of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of her son, reveals what Pieta is on one level; but the anti-capitalist thematic element threading through the film, with money frequently referred to as the work of the Devil, and Kang-do as the devil’s tempter, allows it to function also as allegory for a system in which how much money you have controls how you live, your place within the social strata, and what the life of a mother’s son is worth within that corrupt and dehumanizing system.
As such, Pieta makes a bold and worthy, if challenging statement about our capacity for cruelty and greed. From the comfort and safety of our complacent lives where such things happen only in movies, we can only sit, mouths agape, unable to accept that such terrible things actually happen, probably every day. How do people live like that? And yet, they surely do, in countless numbers, sacrificing their limbs, their organs, their children, their very humanity, in order to survive the most brutal and inhumane definitions of existence. It’s terrible to watch, honestly, and makes you question who and what we humans are, exactly, that there exist people who can coldly execute orders that destroy lives in the name of transactions that are, at their basest level, an invention of man to define an artificial structure of power in which humanity is hardly in the equation.
The violence in this film is just brutal, even though the worst of it happens off-frame, but it’s not gratuitous; within the structure and context of the film, everything that happens is absolutely relevant both in building the thematic elements of the film as a whole, and in establishing a frame of reference for all that happens. This isn’t a pretty film to watch in the aesthetic sense of the word, either. It’s shot to evoke the dismal, gray despair of the lives of its players, and in that its very ugliness becomes a character as well. A hopeful and uplifting cinematic experience this certainly is not, but as a dual exploration of the both the inhumanity of human beings, and the deeper humanity that allows for terrible sacrifice in the name of love and loss, Pieta is undeniably effective.
Middle of Nowhere, Ava DuVernay’s quiet, reflective film, starts out with an interesting premise and builds from there with some strong performances and thoughtful cinematography that effectively evokes the desperation and sorrow of its protagonist, a young woman with a promising future who puts her life on hold when her husband is sent to prison. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), drops out of medical school to work as an nurse for the duration of husband Derek’s (Omar Hardwick) prison sentence, which she convinces herself will be reduced to four years for good behavior, if only he can stay out of trouble. In a sense, Ruby is imprisoned too, though she puts herself into a prison of her own making by her choice to stand by the man she loves, and as the likelihood of Derek’s early release looks bleaker and bleaker, Ruby finds herself questioning the path she’s taken.
Derek wants to stay out of trouble, no doubt, and get the hell of there, but he’s also caught in the reality of being in prison, which is that it’s just not always possible to go about your business and keep your head down without putting your own safety in danger. He also knows that Ruby needs to follow her dream and stay in med school – it’s established early on that Ruby is by far the smartest one in the room — and that if she could just stay in school she’d achieve her goal of becoming a doctor. But Ruby, for reasons that, frankly, rather baffled me as much as they do those close to her, decides she has to continue working in nursing while Derek’s away. After all, she has to keep a roof over her head, and pay off the hefty fees for Derek’s attorney.
Ruby’s sister Rosie (Edwina Findley), a struggling single mom, supports Ruby emotionally while being jealous that Ruby has someone who loves her, even if he is in prison; their tough-love mom, Ruth (Lorraine Toussant) loves her daughters, but can barely contain her disappointment and anger over Rosie’s single mom status and Ruby’s choice to drop out of med school. Still, Ruby toils along, day by day, until the day she meets Brian (David Oyelowo), a kind-hearted bus driver who wants to take Derek’s place in Ruby’s tumultuous life. Ultimately, Ruby has to make a choice: Be true to her marriage, in spite of everything? Take a chance on a new life with Brian? Or find her own path?
DuVernay’s become something of an icon among the African-American filmmaking community over the past several years. She won the Best Director laurels at Sundance this year, making her the first African-American woman to do so, and is the organizer of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement film collective, which organizes efforts for festival submissions and coordinates theatrical releases for films made by African-American filmmakers. She’s becoming quite the powerhouse, known for her passion in articulating her ideas around distribution and minority filmmaking. She’s also, it turns out, a fine writer and director, displaying an able, controlled hand in directing her cast and weaving a story about a strong female protagonist who just needs to find her way. Keep an eye out for DuVernay, this woman is on the move … and she’s not waiting for Hollywood to give her permission to do exactly what she wants to do.
Susanne Bier’s latest film, Love is All You Need, takes an accessible, easy-to-digest premise – at their children’s wedding, a man who’s closed himself off to love meets a sympathetic woman whose marriage is falling apart – and makes of it a much better film than it sounds on paper, thanks in no small part to a smart screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen, who’s just good enough at storytelling to pull it all off. I enjoyed this film quite a lot, although I went into it fully prepared for it to be overly saccharine, based on the catalog description. It’s not. Bier and Jensen have crafted an entertaining little slip of a story here, quite Danish in style and with bit of a humorous bent, and if it’s not taking itself too seriously, well, it is at least entertaining to sit with for a couple hours.
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You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras), Paul Lacoste’s terrific documentary chronicling the decision of celebrated chef Michel Bras to hand over the reins of his renowned restaurant, located in Laguiole in the heart of southern France’s agricultural region, to his son Sebastien (Seba to his father). If you are a foodie, though, and you’ve ever dreamed of attaining the holy grail of actually dining at Bras, you’ll revel in the opportunity to see these master chefs at work, creating edible, exquisite art plated with every bit the care and precision a master painter considers brushstroke, color and composition. But this documentary tells a story about more than the art of haute cuisine.
Filmed over the course of a year and structured in four chapters that express the seasonal use of local products, Step Up to the Plate is as much about the relationship between a father and a son, and, in particular, the emotional and intellectual challenge of being the offspring of a person much renowned in their field of endeavor, who seeks to follow in that parent’s footsteps, as it is about the food this famous father and son create. You might say Sebastien Bras chose being a chef, but then again you might say being a chef chose him.
From the time he was dressed in miniature chef’s whites, learning to use a knife and to select produce and herbs at his father’s knee, this was his path and his destiny. But his mother, who has always been the hostess of her husband’s restaurants, expresses her concern that her son be able to find himself, to make his own place in the food world, and fears that the pressure of potential failure is too great. After all, she notes, Michel had it easier, he started at the bottom and worked his way up to the top; his son has the unenviable position of being already at the top, and having to stay there while stepping out of his father’s shadow and truly into his own place in the world.
The film is sumptuously — one might even say rapturously — shot, capturing the stunning beauty of the region, the carefully minimalist architecture of the restaurant, perched high above the fields, and most of all, the careful, meticulous work that these chefs put into their creations. The opening sequence, in which Michel Bras plates his famous gargouillou, a deconstructed salad composed of over 60 ingredients — fresh spring vegetables, herbs, bulbs, flower petals, fruits, seed pods and more, is mesmerizing. This mirrors nicely with the ongoing, integrated chronicle of Sebastien’s painstaking, agonizing work over the course of the year to create on his own a new dish that will serve, if he can only get it right, as a symbolic passing of the mantle from father to son. Meanwhile, fellow chefs and locals speculate at a grape festival that Sebastien will never be able to fully come into his own until his father steps down.
Lacoste merges beautiful, quietly meditative scenes of Sebastien gazing upon the countryside in which he grew up, while pondering the future that lies before him; tense moments of Sebastien struggling to find the right combination of ingredients for his new signature dish (appropriately enough, translated when he presents it at the end of the film as “The Pathway”); and both father and son critiquing each others creations, even as they clearly share a love of the French countryside, their restaurant, their cuisine, and each other. And fittingly, Lacoste brings his theme of fathers and sons to its own natural pathway, with Sebastien teaching his own young son — now wearing the miniature chef’s whites given him by his father — to follow in his own footsteps some day.
Step Up to the Plate (Entre le Bras) opens today in New York, with a national release to follow. Highly recommended.
Terrence Malick’s style of visual poetry, particularly as expressed in last year’s Tree of Life and now in the equally enigmatic and abstract To the Wonder, isn’t for everyone. And that’s fine. Part of the beauty of film is that not everything has to work for every person, and this is in part because what we get out of a film is refracted to a large degree by what we’re bringing into it. In that sense, there’s not really any such thing as objectivity when it comes to cinema, not even the objectivity of the movie a filmmaker thinks he made; until that end result is viewed by an audience, what a film “is” exists only within the context of the filmmaker’s intent, and what it becomes to each person watching it as individual as the pattern of a fingerprint or snowflake. For me, at least, To the Wonder was lovely and challenging, difficult and beautiful in the same way that life itself is difficult and beautiful.
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I’ve been following the evolution of Ramin Bahrani’s career since his first film, Man Push Cart, debuted at Sundance in 2005, so it was with great interest that I settled in to check out his latest work, At Any Price, a drama built around the inter-generational conflict of a farm family in Iowa. Dean (Zac Efron) dreams of being a Nascar driver and desperately wants to do something with his life other than follow in his father’s footsteps and grow corn. Dean’s dad, Henry (Dennis Quaid), whose grandfather bought and built up the family farm from nothing, carries on his shoulders the heavy weight of trying to please his endlessly disappointed father (Red West, previously seen in Bahrani’s last film, Goodbye Solo) by sustaining a family farm business in an age when farming has become less about good hard work and crops and earth, and more about the big business of corporations and deals with seed companies to sell GMO corn seed to other farmers.
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Five years ago, Tamara Podemski got heaps of notice and won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her terrific performance in Sterlin Harjo’s Four Sheets to the Wind. A graduate of Toronto’s prestigious and highly competitive Claude Watson School for the Performing Arts (Sarah Polley was a classmate), Pademski’s strikingly lovely and multi-talented; with her Sundance breakthrough, she seemed on the verge of the sort of breakthrough that can happen for a young actress when she gets noticed at Sundance. Poised for a career launch, she relocated to LA; she was getting Oscar buzz, she got an Independent Spirit Award nomination. By all rights her trajectory should have been straight up from there. But instead … not much happened for her after that, at least in Hollywood.
A multidisciplinary artist, Podemski kept her head focused on other things, primarily her music (she led the Los Angeles band Spirit Nation, and has released solo work as well) and theater ( Maureen in the Broadway cast of Rent, Hippolyta and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Toronto’s Shakespeare in High Park, among other things). But thus far, success in Hollywood has eluded her, much as it long has another Native American actress, Misty Upham, whose turn in the Oscar-winning Frozen River popped at Sundance a year later, garnering her plenty of adulation and a Spirit nod, but a strikingly similar lack of offers (though it should be noted that things are maybe finally looking better for Upham, who’s lately having a significant career revival, having recently been cast in a flurry of roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy Picard, and August: Osage County).
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One of my favorite films of the first few days of TIFF this year is Rust and Bone, the masterfully executed drama by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) about the relationship between Ali (Bullhead‘s Matthias Schoenaerts), a rough-and-tumble backstreet boxer, and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an aloof trainer of killer whales. The pair meet when Ali rescues Stephanie from a drunken jerk at the bar where he works as a bouncer, but this isn’t your typical love story, not by a long shot.
Very true to form for Audiard, Rust and Bone is, at its simplest, a methodically drawn tale about these two real, flawed human beings whose paths happen to intersect and then collide, changing them both. It’s about what defines and separates who we think we are from who we really are; it’s intellectual and philosophical without being coldly dissecting; and it’s absolutely brilliant in both script and execution. And I could try to talk around the details without giving spoilers, but there’s so much that’s interesting to explore in this film that I’d rather just give you a spoiler alert and plunge on in. So, be forewarned: Spoilers from this point on, if you haven’t seen it yet (or intend to and want to go in completely fresh), come back later.
While Martin McDonagh’s highly anticipated Seven Psychopaths, starring an impressive cast including Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson, lacks somewhat the depth of character that defined McDonagh’s 2008 standout In Bruges, it’s a mostly fun and entertaining romp through the lighter side of darkness — or at least, dark comedy.
So here’s what we have here, for the curious: Marty (Farrell) is a hapless screenwriter who can’t seem to get beyond the title of the story he wants to write, “Seven Psychopaths.” Like a great many would-be screenwriters living in LA, he therefore spends a great deal of time both drinking alcohol and talking about his screenplay, as if by merely talking about it and throwing enough booze into the mix he can will it into existence. Which, interestingly enough, is kind of what happens, as his actor buddy Billy (Rockwell) latches onto the idea and starts pitching various iterations of psychopath characters as potential fodder for Marty’s script, which Billy would very much like to co-write. Unfortunately for Marty, his pipe dream of writing about crazy guys gets a bullet-injected boost of reality when Billy and his sad-sack pal Hans (Walken), who con extra cash by stealing prized pups and then returning them to their owners for reward money, inadvertently steal Bonnie, the beloved Shih Tzu of Charlie (Harrelson), a local gangster kingpin who gets all misty over his pooch, but doesn’t flinch on putting a bullet or two in the brain of a human being. Chaos, hilarity, and lots of guns and killing ensues.
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I’m glad now that I didn’t go to Cannes this year and thus, did not see Walter Salles’ On the Road until its re-cut state here at Toronto. I’d heard some negative buzz about the film out of Cannes, and had almost taken if off my TIFF list as my dance card started getting full. But then I heard that Salles had not only taken some 20 minutes out of the Cannes cut, but also restructured it in the process, and since I happen to also be a fan of Salles generally, I decided to make room for it. And I was glad I did, because whatever may have been wrong with the Cannes cut, the version of On the Road playing at TIFF features very solid performances by a stellar cast and moves along at a brisk, frenetic pace that evokes the dual sense of restlessness and purposefulness that drive Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel.
The underlying themes of On the Road remain largely intact here. The interesting trick of adapting a story in which one of the main characters, Sal (Sam Riley) serves primarily as the observer and narrator for all that happens, is how to remain true to Sal’s point of view while also keeping Sal engaging as a character in and of himself. Dean (Kerouac’s stand-in for Neal Cassady) is the real protagonist here, the one who, by all conventions of traditional screenwriting, should be the one from whom all else flows: his needs, the obstacles to his needs, him overcoming those obstacles, him learning “important life lessons,” and so on.
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Thirteen or so hours of travel yesterday, and I’m back at one of my favorite fests, the Toronto International Film Festival. The first couple years I came here, I didn’t enjoy it much, other than the films. Everything was spread out more, the part of town we stayed in (right on Yonge) smelled funky all the time, I couldn’t find a decent pad thai anywhere, and Yonge between the Marriott and Ryerson gets a little dicey late nights. But hey, Toronto, honestly, it wasn’t you, it was me. It was a rough time in my life, which colored my tolerance for the noise and bustle and whatnot, I didn’t know as many people way back then, and it was a very different fest experience than what TIFF is for me today.
Unfortunately, I kicked off this year’s fest by going to baggage claim at Billy Bishop Airport (cutesy little island airport right near downtown, which I like SO much better than Pearson) and finding that, in some weird case of luggage jet lag, my bag had not quite caught up with the rest of me. Particularly irritating given that I had to retrieve my bag in Boston, schlep over to the International Terminal, and recheck it there. Which I did. So I started off Thursday feeling a bit discombobulated. Thankfully, movie theaters are dark, so I sucked it up, grabbed my badge, and made it to The Gatekeepers and then On the Road, later in the evening, following a lovely media party hosted by the Toronto Film Critics Association, made it back over to the Lightbox to check out a small doc called Fidai, in which a young filmmaker seeks out his uncle, an aging Algerian freedom fighter, in order to tell his life story. Very small crowd spread out in the very small Lightbox 4 theater, which is too bad because it’s actually quite a good story, and certainly one that hasn’t been done and overdone.
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Thursday the Toronto International Film Festival will kick off, and cinephiles, film critics and industry folks will be running amok all over downtown Toronto, rushing to get to screenings and holding court late nights on the patios of bars and restaurants near the Lightbox and Scotiabank, passionately dissecting the latest Malick or PT Anderson or Korine. By a couple days into the fest, the buzz will start swirling around this film or that one, for good or bad, and perfectly planned schedules will get tossed out the window, sometimes because a screening is full, sometimes because you’ve heard terrible things about this film but surprisingly good word on that one.
The first few days, everyone’s excited, high on being back in Toronto for another fest, heady with the allure of a slate of potentially great films to watch. It’s like Christmas for film geeks; you’re surrounded by all these pretty packages, but you don’t know what you’re going to get until you’re sitting in that dark theater and it comes down to the filmmaker’s vision, and how it filters through what you bring into it. Maybe you get something that thrills your soul or makes you laugh or cry, maybe you get something that makes you wonder, “What film didn’t get a slot in the fest because THAT one was chosen? Oy.”
By about day five or six the excited hum of energy surrounding the critics and bloggers and publicists and fest programmers starts to wane a bit as fest exhaustion sets in. You churn through it, you down more coffee or energy drinks, you get a second wind, and a third, and a fourth. But you don’t whine about how hard it all is (or at least, you shouldn’t) because if you’re in Toronto working at TIFF, hey, you’re lucky to be there. You have a job watching films and writing about them, or programming films for another fest, or publicizing films, or buying them, or making them. There are way worse jobs to have than one where you get to go to TIFF every year, to see movies like these, the films from the Gala Presentations slate that I’m most interested in putting on my dance card.