Keanu Reeves

Toronto cinema pays homage to Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves just might be the most underrated movie star out there. But Jesse Wente is out to change that. The Head of Film Programmes at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Wente is the brains behind the Keanu Reeves retrospective, "Whoa. The Films of Keanu Reeves" currently underway at the movie house.

Featuring eleven films spanning Reeves' career, the selection goes from 80s hockey actioner Youngblood, which shows Reeves in his feature film debut beside Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze, to stoner comedy Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure [screening Feb 1] which forever cemented Keanu's awestruck, slightly stoned trademark "whoa...", to indie drama My Own Private Idaho [Feb 22], to his iconic and star-making turns in Speed [March 15] and of course, The Matrix [March 22].

Now, everyone knows who Keanu Reeves is - he is a pop culture icon. I mean, once you have your own Internet memes then you're pretty much set for life. Don't believe me? Ask Chuck Norris...or maybe, don't.

But does anyone really know Keanu Reeves? This is the question that spurred Wente to action for this series. For all his popularity and longevity in the business, you never really hear too much about Reeves, except, it seems, when he chooses it. So in that respect, he really is like an old school movie star - something that is exceptionally hard to be in the current age of, "Privacy? What privacy?"

After what seems like years of not hearing a peep from the reserved actor, last August saw the arrival of Side by Side, a documentary by Reeves featuring interviews with renowned filmmakers like David Lynch and Martin Scorsese on the future of filmmaking in the film versus digital debate.

Later this year will come 47 Ronin, Reeves' first return to big screen action since 2008's The Day The Earth Stood Still, (although there was 2010's bank heist comedy Henry's Crime - which I'm still shocked I didn't know about given the additional presence of James Caan and Vera Farmiga) and there are serious talks underway regarding a third installment in the Bill and Ted series. So one might say the timing of this retrospective was fortuitous, to say the least.

In our interview right before his trip to Sundance, Wente details his love for the films of Canada's favourite prodigal son, explains why Point Break was the make-it-or-break-it selection in the series, and talks about why focusing on dead movie stars might not always be such a great thing.

So you're heading off to Sundance in a day or so?

Early tomorrow morning, yes.

Oh, nice. Are there any films in particular you're looking forward to?

In particular, I'm looking forward to Stoker, which is the new film from the Korean director Park Chan-Wook, and then I'm looking forward to Before Midnight, which is the latest from Richard Linklater.

Nice, nice. So, talking about the retrospective, my first question is, why Keanu Reeves, and why now?

I mean, why not Keanu Reeves? When we're putting together our programming, we're always looking to allow or present a number of different entry points for audiences into cinema and cinema history, so you know, we often look to actors or particularly, popular actors to just give us a sort of new perspective. I think Keanu is at that moment in his career where it's about time for us to go back and re-look, I think, at the films. He is also marking his return to on-camera performance for the first time in a little bit, with 47 Ronin, so it sort of seemed like a...I sort of held my finger up to the wind to see where the zeitgeist was going, and it felt like Keanu's time.

Very nice, very cool. And would you consider yourself a Keanu Reeves fan?

For sure, absolutely. I mean, I hope so! I'm a big fan, I just think it's a very interesting career, with a really wide variety of movies within the career, and I just think, in an age where we've slowly sort of eroded what it means to be a movie star, Keanu Reeves is still a giant movie star. So I think all that is interesting, plus the fact that he is a local Toronto boy who has made really good! So that's why I am a fan, and that's why I wanted to explore his career a little bit this season.

Very cool. And how hard was it to narrow down your scope to just 11 films, out of the entire filmography of his?

Yeah, I mean, that's always the hard part about curation, or programming, the choices you have to make. It's not often we can actually show everything, or more to the point, even that everything is available to be shown. Because not every movie still has a print or whatever that's around to be shown. So we were just sort of going through the list, and picking out what I thought were the really milestone moments, or the benchmark films, and even some of the smaller films that I thought were more interesting and showed a different side to Keanu. That was sort of it.

But yeah, I mean, I think there are some essential titles, movies like River's Edge and My Own Private Idaho, Speed and The Matrix that you couldn't really have a Keanu Reeves series if you weren't going to show those movies. So I think some of the movies choose themselves, and some of the choices are there because I think they are interesting in relation to all the other work that we're showing and they allow for a broader understanding of a star like Keanu Reeves.

Interesting. And what was your goal, would you say, with creating the retrospective, and how did that influence your choices?

I think the goal is always just sort of share a general cinema exuberance with the audience, but also that we should take a second look at someone like Keanu Reeves and that, you know, big, sort of what might be called "pop" movie stars or movie stars of the modern age deserve just as much consideration as the stars of the past, and that we can often get caught up celebrating movie stars who are no longer with us, and sometimes ignore those who are still actively working.

So part of it's to just find a nice balance with everything else that's going on in the [TIFF Bell Lightbox] building. On one hand we're doing a massive series looking at these icons of Japanese actresses, so for me part of the balance is, Well, why don't we look at a living actor, and hey, why not Keanu Reeves, you know?

Awesome. You know, it's interesting you mention the idea of pop movie stars because there's this particular fascination with Keanu Reeves. I mean, he has his own memes, and I actually discovered a blog dedicated entirely to curating news about him and interviews with him. It's called (Editor's note: link removed at site's request)

Awesome, awesome! Yeah, he has...there's all sorts of fake twitter accounts. I think part of it that he's like an old school movie star, we don't really see him that often. Like, it's really only when he decides to do something we see him. He's not a guy who's on Twitter, or in the tabloids, or constantly sort of in our face. I think that adds to the allure and the mystique, and sort of in the end, I think helps ultimately mean that he remains a movie star. I mean, when is he around? We haven't seen him in a while, and now he has a giant movie out. You know, I think that adds to the persona that is Keanu.

Nice. And you mention that he's coming out with a new on-screen movie role, but I believe last year he had a documentary about the whole digital vs film divide, and interviewed a whole lot of filmmakers about that. Did you get a chance to see that?

Oh yeah, for sure, we've seen it. I think it's again a fascinating choice, you know, for a guy who is primarily known as a movie star, you know, made a very serious documentary, really about the state of our art, where the art of cinema currently rests. I thought it was a very...really powerful documentary, and I think it speaks to, again, the variety of choices he's made. Here's a guy who's in one of the big blockbusters, or what will be one of the big blockbusters of the year, and yet the film he did previously was this small documentary about the art of cinema and the technology around moviemaking.

You know, that's really interesting, so I think that's all part of why I think now is the right moment to really sort of take another look at a guy who, for a lot of people, is maybe a second thought. As popular as he is, I don't necessarily know if we've ever considered just how astonishing and amazing his career has been, and how [many] great movies he's been a part of, that he is reaching a level that is deserving of some recognition. So I think that the fact that he made this really insightful documentary looking at where his particular art form currently is, is more flavour of what is a very interesting artist.

Interesting. That's a really good way to put it too. Have you ever met him?

Keanu Reeves? Yeah, like, ages ago, on a junket for some movie. Here's what I'll say, he knows the series is happening, you know, I would love to say that he will come, but that's not necessarily in the offing - but we always hold out hope. He's very busy right now, finishing the film in China, but he is aware. I haven't spoken to him in...boy, oh, boy, it's got to be fifteen years or something like that.

Well, you know, let's hope he does spring a surprise visit on us. That would be nice. One more question. I know as a curator you had to look at his whole career, but personally, what's your all-time favourite Keanu Reeves film?, I'm going to go with Point Break, the Kathryn Bigelow movie. She just directed Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about Osama bin Laden that's out now, and is up for the Oscar. This was sort of an earlier film for her. There's often two sides to Keanu Reeves on screen, he can sometimes play sort of dumb, sort of the Bill & Teds, or River's Edge, or sort of the Matrix-style na誰ve, always-awestruck character. Or there's the brash, "I-am-awesome-and-I-am-Keanu" Keanu on screen.

Point Break is sort of the latter, you know, he's really expressive, and out and bold and everything, and I think it's a fantastic performance, but I think the movie is one of those forgotten action masterpieces of the 90s. I think there's so much to love in the movie from Patrick Swayze, to sort of slow-motion homoeroticism, which seems to be part of all of Keanu's movies, to the soundtrack, to Gary Busey's unhinged performance as his partner.

I just think there's so much to take in in that movie that, of any of them that I'm most interested in seeing again on the big screen, it's probably that one. But I think he's great in River's Edge, I think he's great in My Own Private Idaho, I think A Scanner Darkly - the animated film from Richard Linklater - is a fantastic movie, absolutely worth rediscovering for the first time, because most people never saw it.

So I mean, the series for me is populated with all sorts of movies that I'm dying to see, you have Youngblood on Friday, but if there was one that like, "I won't do the series if we can't show this", probably it was Point Break.

Very cool. Well, I think you did a really good job with this, bridging right from the start of his career to now, so thank you, thank you for bringing this to us.

Oh, thanks so much for the article, I really appreciate it.

"Whoa. The Films of Keanu Reeves" continues at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from January 11 - April 5.

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