Witch, please

A thrill-sniffing guide to the Toronto International Film Festival
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cheryl@sfbg.com

If you can end your Toronto International Film Festival experience with a movie that climaxes in a 10-minute fistfight (roofs collapse, cinder blocks are smashed, tables become splinters, ankle bones snap like twigs, and vengeance is won ... but at what price?), that qualifies as a joyous note in my book. And fortunately, it's my book we're talking about — specifically, my TIFF screening list, which by the end of my festival stint was completely mangled by incoherent scribblings and intricate schemes involving cinematic scheduling and basic human needs (chief among them sleep, which was often totally disregarded).

There's a fine art to festivalgoing. I'm not sure I've mastered it yet. But I managed to see 26 (and a half) movies, probably missing some that I should have seen and certainly digesting a few disappointments. Another critic could spend a week in Toronto and see none of the films that I saw; my tastes run toward horror, documentaries, Hollywood and accessible indie stuff by directors I admire, and Hong Kong cinema (like the ankle buster mentioned above, the Donnie Yen–<\d>starring Flash Point). Plus, you gotta work in at least a few totally random selections — otherwise, what's the point of being surrounded by cinema 24-7?

The big bananas in the horror bunch were Dario Argento's Mother of Tears, the long-awaited conclusion to his witch-happy Three Mothers trilogy, and George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, hyped as the legendary zombie king's return to no-frills filmmaking. I also followed my thrill-sniffing snout to Spanish newcomer Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage and the French Frontier(s), directed by Xavier Gens (whose Hollywood debut, video game–<\d>based Hitman, is currently trailered on Death Sentence). I'm a huge fan of Argento's gialli and flashy, trashy, blood-soaked horror epics — and while I'm aware of the argument that he hasn't made a great film since 1985's Phenomena, Mother of Tears offers vintage pleasures galore. You want a coherent story and subtle acting? Look elsewhere (perhaps to the ghostly, Guillermo del Toro–<\d>produced fable The Orphanage). Argento's tale starts with a cursed urn and snowballs into mad hysteria, grabbing a gold-toothed witch, Argento ex (and Mother star Asia Argento's real-life mother) Daria Nicolodi, a creepy monkey, and exorcist Udo Kier en route to a church-burningly ridiculous conclusion. In other words, I loved it.

I wasn't as sold on Frontier(s), a well-made but derivative Texas Chainsaw Massacre descendent that squanders its interesting Paris riots context. And it's my sad duty to report that Diary of the Dead is hardly essential Romero. Glowing reviews published elsewhere baffle me. Diary works an of-the-moment theme of kids subverting the mainstream media via user-controlled Internet sites — post–<\d>undead apocalypse, the only source of truth for the masses. But it becomes caught up in Making a Statement, and its narrative device — camera-wielding film student obsessively documents the undead uprising — is completely irritating. Sorry, but I'll take the flawed-but-fun Land of the Dead any day.

Enfolded into my documentary diet were several music-themed entries, including Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Joy Division, and the doclike narratives Control and I'm Not There. We all know things are bad in Iraq, but Heavy Metal puts them on a regular-dude level that CNN reports don't often facilitate. Metal outfit Acrassicauda love Slayer and Metallica, and they (and their fans) just wanna rock. At the start of the film (exec-produced by Spike Jonze and codirected by Suroosh Alvi, the cofounder of Vice magazine, and Eddy Moretti), the musicians claim they aren't a political band.

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