TIFF 2011: Toronto International Film Festival

Monday | September 22, 2014

TIFF opens with sci-fi film 'Looper'


Bruce Willis stars in Looper.

There was palpable shock among the "serious" film buffs in town when the Toronto International Film Festival announced that its opening night film would be Looper -- a sci-fi action film with (gulp) Bruce Willis.

It wasn't so much that the spot wasn't going to a Canuck film as tradition dictated. Recently that tradition had been broken with a U2 concert film last year, and the Charles Darwin biopic Creation two years previous.

It was more the matter of giving up the opening bell to broad entertainment, a guns-blazing "genre" film no less, one that used time travel as its narrative gimmick.

No one should have been surprised, however. As much as it has offered up "experimental" films that had cineastes scratching their chins appreciatively, TIFF has championed grindhouse over arthouse.

Of course, there's its acclaimed Midnight Madness programme, where all the fanboys go to see the next-bloody-thing.

But outright mainstream treatment was given to films like Reservoir Dogs (which a young Quentin Tarantino flogged relentlessly around town, shaking hands with anyone in his path), Abel Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant, and John Woo's Hard-Boiled.

And of course, anything with the twisted imprimatur of Cronenberg is likely to be under the TIFF spotlight -- usually David, but this year sees the close-up of his filmmaker son Brandon with the creepy Antiviral.

But it was Midnight Madness, started in 1988 by Noah Cowan (now the artistic director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox) that really turned the festival into a genre launching pad. That first lineup included Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Brain Damage by Frank Henenlotter (of It's Alive! Fame).

Subsequent years of Midnight Madness would fill entire volumes of coverage by specialty mags like Rue Morgue and Fangoria. Long before Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson unveiled his manic zombie flick Braindead there. An unknown Russell Crowe got his closeup in the Aussie skinhead flick Romper Stomper. Any new releases by Italian horror legend Dario Argento or Hong Kong gangster film master Johnny To were TIFF-bound. I first discovered Cory McAbee's cult sci-fi flick The American Astronaut there. And Midnight Madness was the launching pad for Thailand's Ong Bak, one of the most enjoyable martial arts films ever made.

More recent standouts on the Midnight Madness circuit included The Machinist (the first hint we got that Christian Bale might be a little bit nuts), Eli Roth's Hostel, and an off-beat little comedy called Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

It may not be art ... but then again, maybe it is.

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