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As is often the case, it’s not whatcha know as much as it’s whoya know… and, in this case, it means I was invited, again, to participate in The Toronto Star‘s Peter Howell‘s annual pre-TIFF feature called Chasing The Buzz, wherein li’l film-loving bloggers like me get to throw our 2¢ into the pot along with the pocket change from professional film columnists and reviewers, critics and professors, festival programmers and assorted muckety-mucks (Hello, Piers). What’s in the pot, you ask? Well, Pete wants us to explain–in a single sentence (although a garrulous few get away with more)–which three films we are most excited about seeing at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols wrote and directed one of my happiest discoveries of the past year, Shotgun Stories (2007), which also features the star of Take Shelter, the estimable Michael Shannon. (Okay, full disclosure: I have an extreme case of the h-h-hots for Mr. Shannon. Fair ’nuff?  In fact, Shotgun Stories may have been the Shannon performance that hooked me. You might know him best as Agent Van Alden Awesome in HBO‘s “Boardwalk Empire”.)  It is a quiet but devastating little film about a feuding family that I highly recommend–the writing and performances are beautiful.

It is on the basis of Shotgun Stories that I am keen to see Take Shelter.  Again written by Nichols, it is the story of Curtis–a young husband and father and a crew chief for a mining company in the American Midwest–who may or may not be taking a frightening trip around the proverbial bend.  I expect it will be up to the viewer to decide which is the case… as Curtis struggles to understand the same thing onscreen.  

Shannon has covered similar ground before–most obviously in Bug (both on stage and on film), where his character Peter believed he was a victim of biological testing by the military but may, in fact, have escaped from a mental institution. As someone colourfully put it, he tends to end up in roles where he plays someone who is one stubbed toe away from a psychotic break.

“There are dark forces in the world, and if you pay attention to what’s going on around you, you end up incorporating it into the storytelling. Maybe it’s some aspect of myself that’s coming through that people are seeing, that I am in fact a quiet psycho.” His gentle, non-psycho smile suggests he finds humor in the typecasting.

New York Times interview with Michael Shannon by David Carr

In Take Shelter, I expect to see a quiet performance from Shannon, as his character must confront fear for his family’s safety and fear for his own sanity.

What I like about Michael Shannon is that he’s so fiercely intense—carries things on his face—but the most interesting part about Mike is the layer of sensitivity underneath all that intensity. When people can cast him in those roles and find that moment, then that’s when I find him most fascinating. If he’s just crazy, if he’s just mean and brutal, he does that amazingly well—but that’s not what I go for. That’s not what I tap him for.

Jeff Nichols

Into the Abyss, dir. Werner Herzog

If you know me, then you know that one of my favourite directors is Werner Herzog, so it will come as no surprise to find his new film on my Chasing the Buzz list.  It’s a given that if Herzog has a film at TIFF or Hot Docs, I’ll wanna see it. Last year, it was the wonderful Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the year before that it was both Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done (starring… wait for it… Michael Shannon!).

This year, Herzog takes us into the abyss when he focuses his attention on inmates on death row in the U.S.  He talks with people convicted of murder–including one man who killed his girlfriend and her two mentally disabled sons and a woman convicted of kidnapping and murder. He looks at the crimes and their legacy, in both the victims and perpetrators. Not sure what will be more difficult–his talks with the families of the victims or those with the murderers, themselves–but this will certainly be his heaviest film in quite awhile.

Urbanized, dir. Gary Hustwit

Urbanized is the final film in Gary Hustwit‘s design trilogy, following Objectified (2009) and Helvetica (2007)–both of which I enjoyed at Hot Docs.  It appears that Hustwit’s investigation into how design affects our lives started with something small (the design of a font), got a little bigger (industrial design of everyday objects), and now is quite large (the design of the very cities where we live and work). I have found this series to be engaging and entertaining and enlightening and I stumbled upon the first film only because I’m a bit of a font geek; lo and behold, Helvetica turned out to be my favourite film at that year’s festival!

Along with architects, developers, city planners and politicians involved in various urban design projects around the world, Hustwit talks with ordinary citizens who have managed to influence the development of their own communities.  Seeing as how half of the world’s population now lives in an urban setting and it’s projected that 75% of us will be doing so by 2050, the design of them is something that will affect the majority of lives on this planet and the citizens’ voices can carry significant weight.

As I watch the pitched battles over bike lanes and car tolls, proposed ferris wheels and monorails, it strikes me that the citizens of Toronto might be interested in this film as great changes to the Big Smoke are promised (or threatened, depending on how you look at it).

There are about 15 other films that have caught my eye at TIFF this year. I’ll see if I can make the time to tell you a bit about them soon.

As always, sincere thanks to Peter for inviting me to participate again this year!  It’s always fun.


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