Last night, the Toronto International Film Festival opened with a bang and a thunder with Paul Gross' explosive WWI saga, Passchendaele.
This site isn't normally a film review destination--it's not called Film Feeds My Family--but, as a guest of premium channel broadcaster Astral Media, what the hell, I'm gonna weigh in.
Have to say off the bat that Astral always throws a great opening party, something they've done for 21 years now at TIFF. They pack Roy Thompson Hall (a great movie venue, by the way) with A-listers, including Gross and his game Passchendaele cast (including the luminescent Caroline Dhavernas and former Ally McBeal star Gil Bellows), film fest regulars such as Sarah Polley and Atom Egoyan and plenty of politicians, including Toronto mayor David Miller, provincial Tory leader John Tory and former PM Brian Mulroney. Even former chief of defense general Rick Hillier was in the house.
Missing from the usual opening remarks (blessedly shorter this year) was a sacrificial representative of the current federal government. Usually this week's minister of culture takes a bow at this opening gala. Unlike the Canadian heroes of Passchendaele, they chickened out under fire this year, as Martin Knelman and Linda Barnard point out in a front page story in today's Toronto Star.
A relentless series of devastating cuts to the arts community--not to mention that whole, ultra sneaky, Bill C-10 debacle--would not have played well in this room just hours prior to an election call. Any Harper minister would likely have been booed off the stage, not to mention pelted by the many placard-carrying protesters outside.
Instead, the crowd was treated to a short, feel good film salute to TIFF founder and legendary party dude Dusty Cohl, who passed away earlier this year.
A highlight at these things is always the short promo trailer run before the opening gala feature featuring affable Astral CEO Ian Greenberg. This year, Mr. Greenberg was the punchline in a clever and elaborate send up of the Will Smith film I Am Legend. It got the biggest laugh of the night.
Gross' Passchendaele could have used some of that self-effacing touch. The film is handsome and dripping with patriotic spit and polish (the serge-suited Royal Regiment of Canada band even played The Maple Leaf Forever from the first balcony last night). In part inspired by Gross' grandfather, who fought in WWI, the film lurches from tense, you-are-there battle scenes to soapy, Road To Avonlea melodrama. Gross not only stars, but wrote, directed, produced and even penned the closing song in the $21 million production.
You have to applaud his vision and tenacity in getting this very Canadian (and likely not very exportable) enterprise to the screen (bankrolled by no less a patron of the arts than--get this--Ralph Klein!). Yet, you can't help think how the film could have been better if Gross had handed off at least three of these jobs to other people. While, with his usual heroic dash, he doesn't seem miscast as the central hero, at 49, he's a little long in the tooth to be playing 27. Speaking of teeth, Gross' dazzling while enamels seemed ridiculously out of place in a film set in 1917. I kept looking to see if Dr. Kochman had set up a clinic in a nearby foxhole.
The battle scenes are extraordinary, especially in the last half hour, when you really do feel the terror of the attack, knee-deep in mud and water. The scene is loud, violent and relentlessly intense, right up there with Saving Private Ryan.
But for every march forward in Passchendaele there's a ghastly retreat, as in the battlefield booty call just prior to the big war finale. The soft porn seduction was goofy, with poor Dhavernas writhing and moaning while getting stand-up shtupped by Gross, as the camera pans to a garage-door-sized hole in the barn wall showing the full fury of war reining down on the Canadian troops. Talk about stiff upper lip!
The producers boasted before the screening that DVD screeners of the movie will eventually be distributed to every classroom in Canada to help kids relate to Canada's heroic, coming of age accomplishments at Passchendaele. Call me a prude, but this film might inspire some smirking "What did YOU do in the war, granddad?" questions that the producers and educators didn't anticipate.