Toronto: cinema’s geekiest location?

Often disguised as somewhere else, Toronto has been a popular filming location for years, as Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World points out. Here’s Jeff’s tribute to the geekiest location in cinema...

“They film movies in Toronto?” one character says, rather incredulously, in the recent Edgar Wright extravaganza, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. They certainly do.

Toronto is the cinematic equivalent of Cinderella: although it hosts one of the world’s biggest film festivals and is often seen in movies and TV, it’s usually dolled up to look like some other North American metropolis, say New York or Chicago, a fact the recent Scott Pilgrim makes sure to satirise.

The city’s most iconic piece of architecture, the CN Tower (formerly the world’s tallest freestanding structure) is often hidden away, lest cinemagoers ever identify the city’s skyline by its giant phallus.

Toronto so often represents other cities, or any city, that it rarely gets to play its sweet self. Strangely, it’s in the less mainstream, cult fare in which T.O.’s multicultural sprawl gets to strip off its frequent Americanised makeover and strut its own stuff.

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To his credit, Edgar Wright followed Bryan Lee O’Malley’s source material close to home, setting Scott Pilgrim in Toronto as Toronto (cramming west-end Annex locations like Pizza Pizza, Honest Ed’s, Sonic Boom Records, and Lee’s Palace into as many shots as possible). The attention to detail is notable, rendering the movie with a sense of place and self just as New York is to Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Here then, is a tribute to movies in a city that may be one of the most gloriously geeky around:

Videodrome (1983)

Long live the new flesh! James Woods plays the head of a Toronto cable station CIVIC-TV which airs schlocky, violent adult fare. Woods’ portrayal of Max Renn has been compared to Toronto media mogul, Moses Znaimer, who started up CityTV, Toronto’s first UHF station, which itself stirred up controversy airing ‘blue’ movies late at night.

Local hero David Cronenberg’s flick takes a cue from fellow Torontonian Marshall McLuhan and literalises his popular “the medium is the message” ideology in this warped tale about a TV signal that causes Renn to hallucinate and lose his sense of self, with results both gory and mind-blowing (the head-blowing results were saved for Scanners, shot in Montreal, where the bagels are admittedly better).

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Look out for: Hey, there‘s the CN Tower, looming large in some background shots like a silent sentinel. Who knows what nefarious broadcasts are being beamed from this massive TV antenna?

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Admittedly, here’s yet another example where Toronto is disguised as a number of other cities, as is nearby industrial Hamilton, Ontario, which also gets in on the action (it’s a grittier and less expensive location).

The climactic fight sequence at the end is meant to take place in Harlem, with a faux Apollo Theatre marquee to confuse the unsuspecting cinemagoer.

But the other landmarks in this sequence are such notable Torontonian fixtures from the Yonge/Dundas intersection that they warrant inclusion: the Big Slice pizzeria, the Zanzibar strip club, and the neon discs from the much-loved (and now lost) Sam The Record Man.

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No, Toronto did not stand in for the Rio sequences. Until the city gets some mountains and tropical foliage, it can’t.

Look out for: University of Toronto’s main campus, standing in for Culver U, Virginia

Strange Brew (1983)

What began as an inside joke on SCTV in which Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis spoofed Canadian television’s mandate for required Canadian content became one of the TV show’s most beloved pair of characters in the McKenzie Brothers, spawning a hit record album (check out the single Take Off with vocals by Rush’s Geddy Lee), and eventually this film, a fermented take on Hamlet, of all things.

About as stereotypically Canuck as it gets, the Mckenzies even inspired a “Hoser Day” Parade back in the 80s.

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Look out for: Elsinore Brewery, better known as Casa Loma. The for-real castle-in-a-city (and the adjacent Baldwin steps) feature in one of Scott Pilgrim‘s better fight sequences, and was also used for parts of Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters in X-Men.

The Fly (1986)

Most of the films in Cronenberg’s oeuvre feature various weirdness going on against the backdrop of the city. Mutant children go on a murderous school rampage in The Brood, Toronto expressways and ensuing car accidents get fetishized in Crash.

In The Fly, Jeff Goldblum’s science lair is a loft in reclaimed factory space, one of many of the city’s buildings from a bygone industrial era, such as brickworks factories and distilleries, which have since been gutted and turned trendy.

“The movie, without making a big deal of it, really does take place in Toronto,” Cronenberg states on the DVD commentary, although speaking as a resident unschooled in interior design, it’s hard to be objective about what specifically is the “classic Toronto apartment look” to Geena Davis’ flat.

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Look out for: The “Monkey Cat” extra on the DVD’s extras, featuring a half-mutated Goldblum going nutso against a pictorially beautiful backdrop of the city skyline.

Last Night (1998)

Don McKellar’s film tackles the end of the world, Toronto-style. No, there aren’t guns-a-blazing, or any force of nature that will smash the cityscape to CGI bits.

Instead, we get none other than David Cronenberg (yeah, he’s getting a lot of mention in this article) appearing as the head of a power company calling up his customers to explain that he’ll keep the city’s juice running until the very end. Too bad the province’s own power companies can’t make the same promises, even without an apocalypse.

Look out for: The red TTC buses and streetcars, some of which are victims of the Armageddon. They’re as much a part of the city as the yellow taxicabs are in New York.

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Dawn Of The Dead (2004)

Although Zack Snyder’s remake of DOTD isn’t set in Toronto (it was filmed in a shopping mall just north of the city), we’re including it to honour Zombie Maestro George A. Romero, who moved to town a few years back, and filmed his more recent films like Diary Of The Dead and Land Of The Dead north of the border, swapping Pittsburgh locations of his earlier work for the T Dot.

Look out for: Canadian Zombies. They run a hell of a lot faster than their American counterparts.