Greetings from Toronto ...

Where old masters, drunk teenagers, and Asia Argento make the fest's first week a blast.

Toronto International Film Festival
Asia Argento reads the writing on the wall in Mother of  Tears.
Asia Argento reads the writing on the wall in Mother of Tears.
It's pretty much a toss-up which I love more: gorging on cinema or getting up at noon. And so, on the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival, in lieu of contemplating Bela Tarr's The Man From London, I lingered in my pajamas anticipating The Breakfast From Room Service.

Duly fortified, it was time to face facts, though my first act of festivalgoing was pure speculation. The Canadian feature Young People Fucking could only go downhill from its title. I opted instead for Chinese people fucking, aka Lust, Caution, the new period romance from director Ang Lee. Set against the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the '40s and starring Tang Wei as a plucky resistance fighter tasked with seducing a dastardly, debonair collaborator (Tony Leung), the movie features very good fucking indeed, beginning with a rough jolt of pseudo-rape that momentarily slaps a flush in the tasteful, bloodless proceedings. Nipples, pubes, a pair of low-hangers, and one or two insinuated inches of Leung's mighty dong were enough to get a rise out of limp-brained MPAA prudes — who rated the film NC-17 — if no one else.

Or maybe not: Yawns were no sooner stifled in the screening room (suggested title: Lush, Comatose) when word arrived from the Venice Film Festival that Se Jie, as it's called in Chinese, had tamed the Golden Lion. Whether jury president Zhang Yimou was stirred by patriotism or merely a boob, I'm amazed that he convinced fellow jurist Paul Verhoeven to throw support behind a film that Verhoeven just made himself — he called his Black Book — which has twice the passion and way better beaver shots.

Venice gave its actor prize to the wrong person in the right film. Brad Pitt blazes charisma as the legendary antihero in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but it's Casey Affleck's beguiling turn as a legendary loser that everyone's talking about in Toronto. Affleck brings sensational squirm to young Bob Ford, the would-be bandit seduced by the light of a falling star, then inexorably drawn to snuff it out. If that sounds like the premise of a classic revenge saga, director Andrew Dominik plays it as contemplative character study — so revisionist a Western, you might as well revise the genre classification entirely.

Toronto's other highfalutin neo-Western, No Country for Old Men, lives up to its knockout Cannes reputation. Adapting Cormac McCarthy's terse Texas thriller about drug deals gone wrong, sheriffs gone moody, good guys with crap luck, and one seriously creepy psychopath, the extra-clever Joel and Ethan Coen have made two smart decisions. First, they stick so close to McCarthy's tight narrative that they make it even tighter. Second, they pry humor from his macho-minimalist dialogue, relieving the material of its self-serious burden.

If America is no place to grow old, try Canada: They love them some grandpa up here. The latest from indefatigable maestros Manoel de Oliveira (98), Sydney Lumet (83), and Claude Chabrol (77) promise to be highlights of the week to come. Nouvelle vague legend Eric Rohmer (88) looks back to the springtime of youth in his endearingly batty take on the 17th century, Romance of Astree and Celadon. Uneasily pitched between avant-garde theatrics and complete dorkiness, it's a testament to an old man's intractable artistry. In fact, it's doubly admirable in light of the aggressively hip sensibility evinced in Juno, Jason Reitman's deeply conservative comedy about how totally hilarious and supersweet it is for a 16-year-old high school girl not to have an abortion.

And then there's Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, Italian horror maestro Dario Argento's concluding chapter of the trilogy that began with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). An instant cult classic and easily the most entertaining film of the festival to date, this orgy of crazed plotting, magnificently bad acting, cheap special effects, and priceless conviction meditates on the second fall of Rome (riots, road rage, mothers chucking babies off bridges), which antiquities restorer Asia Argento precipitates by releasing an ancient evil witch (nude in red platforms, writhing for her minions) from an urn. Plus unholy monkeys, plus psychic lesbians, plus Japanese goth freakazoids, plus Udo Kier — and that's so not the half it, I can't even tell you.

The spectacle of a teenage drunk collapsing on the sidewalk in a puddle of her own vomit outside the Ryerson Theater proved an auspicious grindhouse omen for the unruly (by Toronto standards) Midnight Madness premiere of George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead. I'll have more to say about this fierce and scrappy indie, about a world so fucked there's nothing left to do but record it, after visiting with the master in his Toronto home next week. There's little to report of Redacted, Brian De Palma's much-anticipated, mucho-disappointing drama of war crimes in Iraq, other than to note its uncanny deployment of the exact same form as Diary, both of which stream their shifting points of view across multiple video platforms (home movies, surveillance videos, blogs, cell-phone cams), but only one of which has bite ... and a deaf Amish badass who detonates the undead with dynamite and decapitates them with a scythe.

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