When you live in downtown Toronto, you quickly become accustomed to the people calendar -- when the streets will be silent, and when they'll be buzzing. It starts when school lets out -- young kids hit the playgrounds while the college kids head home and free up the late-night sidewalks. Every third person is now a tourist, stopping every few feet for pictures or to look at a map. On the weekends, the city often becomes a ghost town, as hordes head up north to cottages. But then it's back to school, often marked by the eager new engineers running around the city painted purple.
And just a few days later, they're joined by slick stars and a million press badges as the Toronto International Film Festival gears up. The stars are out, as are the press, the movie lovers, and the eager onlookers. Teeny boppers buzz like packs of bees around the Four Seasons and other Yorkville haunts for a peek at someone famous. It's movies and fans everywhere.
But reviews don't give you a taste of the city, nor do quick glimpses in films like Chicago and Urban Legend. You can see it retro-style with SCTV, but that city is in the past. The best way to get a taste of Toronto without being here is through Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar. Between the films he's directed and those he's acted in, you can get many tastes of this town, from exotic women to last nights on Earth. In honor of the fest, and of the wonderful T-Dot, I offer you: Childstar and Monkey Warfare.
I first saw Childstar at TIFF in 2004. Don McKellar walked onto the stage to introduce it, at a podium strangely nestled at the far right of the stage. And the introduction, while understandable, just seemed a little bit off. That's because he channeled the beginning of the film, and when the lights dimmed, there he was again, on the big screen, in the same place, with those same words.
Childstar is the story of a child actor, Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall). Along with his easily distracted mother Suzanne (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Taylor has come to Toronto to film a new cheesy action movie. He's the typical movie star kid, having a mother who is both overbearing and absent, and a lifestyle that allows him to be the biggest brat possible. After firing a myriad of tutors, his limo driver and aspiring filmmaker Rick (McKellar) gets the undesired job.
But Rick was also lured into signing a paper that makes him the guardian of Taylor, so that his mom can leave the set. Thrust into this father figure role, Rick does what he can, but everything falls apart when young love blossoms. Taylor runs away, from the set and his lonely life, to shmooze a model/actress named Natalie (Kristen Adams) and get a taste of real life. Some of the 'tude melts away, and you see that this is a kid who has no idea how to be a kid, or how to really be an adult.
Don McKellar, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film, got the idea from a conversation with Haley Joel Osment at an Oscar party in 1999.
The film's opening.
Picking up Taylor at the airport, and all of his fans.
Interview with Don McKellar, discussing that Osment conversation and his work.
Childstar is still a Hollywood-flavored look at Toronto, so for something a little less star-studded, there's Reginald Harkema's Monkey Warfare.
McKellar stars as Dan, a man who lives in downtown Toronto off the things he scavenges with life-partner Linda (Tracy Wright). Ex-revolutionaries, they scour the many treasures left by the side of the road and sell them while supplementing their cheap, bohemian life with a healthy dose of pot. But then their stash dries up and Dan meets a cutie named Susan (Nadia Litz). She's got pot, and older, dissatisfied partner clashes with the new, irresistible youth. But the name of the game is Warfare, and Susan wants a taste of Dan and Linda's old life.
As James said in his SXSW review: "Monkey Warfare isn't just a high-minded examination of radical ideas and actions; it's also funny as hell. McKellar's got a near-perfect deadpan, and Wright portrays Linda's mix of apathy and paranoia (both political and personal, as Susan spends more and more time with Dan) with razor-sharp acuity."
But it's also a nice peek into other parts of the city -- beyond the flash and movies and financial district sheen, and a look into the neighborhood life nestled downtown -- from Toronto's huge bike culture to the window shopping that can always be done at the side of the road.
You can download it here for $10.
The film was shot in two weeks with $30k -- Harkema's line of credit.
"Hot Chicks on Bikes"
The Bible in Monkey Warfare.