Posted: 09/18/2004


Toronto Film Festival – 2004

by Paul Fischer

September 9-18, 2004

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Part One

There is no doubt as far as film festivals go, they don’t get any bigger than Toronto, one of the premier film festivals that has become larger and more expansive with each passing year. This year, films as diverse as the low-budget Primer to Hollywood biggies Ray and Sharks Tale will screen here, and in between, films from around the world. More press than ever before are expected to descend en masse upon the always friendly Canadian festival, not to mention industry big wigs, studio bosses and film buyers hoping to snap up the latest from stars Johnny Depp or Jeremy Irons. Stars will be here, from Depp and Will Smith, to Selma Blair and Kate Bosworth, it’s a star-spotting frenzy. But as usual, this festival is about the movies, and the hope that the next major gem will be discovered amidst a Festival of riches.

Opening night was then best Festival opener seen in years: the delightfully acerbic Being Julia. Concerned that her fading youth and beauty will being to affect her career, estranged from her only son and pretending to be ignorant of her husband’s (Jeremy Irons) philandering, Julia (Annette Bening) is adrift in the world, searching for some way in which to regain the spark of passion. She seems to find that renewed fervour when she meets Tom, a young American admirer who also happens to be her son’s best friend. Tom sweeps Julia off her feet, and the aging celebrity embarks on an illicit affair which, if discovered, would create a social scandal that could ruin her already-waning career and destroy her rocky marriage. But Julia soon discovers that her exciting new passion is but the latest facet of her life to be based upon a lie, when she learns her ardent young lover is more interested in what she can do for his career than in her, and that his real affection is actually devoted to an ambitious young starlet. This revelation leads Julia to plot an elaborate revenge to satisfy her wounded pride and get back some of the dignity that has been gradually eroded by the various compromises she has been forced to make. This 1930s-set comedy is magnificent entertainment, a dazzlingly witty film that boasts impeccably writing by the masterful Ronald Harwood, and István Szabó’s robust and imaginative direction. Annette Bening gives the performance of her career, playing an actress trying to come to terms with her age, refusing to conform to societal conventions. With an impeccable British accent, Bening turns in a fiery, comic yet deeply human performance, one that will surely gain attention come awards season. Being Julia is a smart, stylish comedy, and the perfect opening night film for any festival.

More films to check out here at Toronto in the coming days, and the odd celebrity to chat to, so stay tuned.

Part Two

Day 1 of Toronto was straight into Kevin Spacey’s dazzling and visually imaginative Beyond the Sea, Spacey’s lively and imaginative take on the life of Bobby Darrin. A 50s crooner who married Sandra Dee, Spacey incorporates fantasy musical sequences and heartfelt poignancy to piece together a compelling and well drawn biography, which is consistently and energetically entertaining. Spacey inhabits Darren with magnificent precision, and the always beguiling Kate Bosworth gives a stunning performance as Dee, delivering a layered beautiful performance. Spacey directs with vivid, colorful strokes and sings, dances and acts his way to another Oscar nomination. Beyond the Sea is captivating and exhilarating, a true work of art.

I Heart Huckabees from David O. Russell is profoundly mystifying.

But not necessarily in a good way. At times utterly pretentious and verbally excessive, the film seems to poke fun at its own philosophical outpourings yet it’s also curiously entertaining, featuring hilarious work by Dustin Hoffman and Jason Schwartzman. At times you may find yourself scratching your head in disbelief at the film’s looney plot but having fun in the process.

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice gets a lush, star treatment from director Michael Radford with mixed results. Pacino certainly has fun chewing the scenery as Shylock and has compelling moments while Jeremy Irons is a subtle and intricate Antonio. Beautifully shot, the film works cinematically but its Elizabethan depiction of anti-Semitism seems dated. But it’s a vibrant approach to the material that looks marvelous.

Final screening of the night was the harrowing Hotel Rwanda, a powerful, moving and disturbing film about the Rwandan civil war and the mass genocide that occurred. Ten years ago, some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind took place in the country of Rwanda; and in an era of high-speed communication and round-the-clock news, the events went almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. In only three months, almost 1 million people were brutally murdered. In the face of these unspeakable actions, inspired by his love for his family, an ordinary man (Don Cheadle) summons extraordinary courage to save the lives of over a thousand helpless refugees by granting them shelter in the hotel he manages. Boasting a simply magnificent, Oscar-calibre performance by Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda is a sublime, mature and exquisite film, one that is both deeply disturbing yet ultimately hopeful. The film doesn’t gloss over the atrocities or any way “hollywoodise” these events. Rather, British director Terry George crafted a documentary-side drama that exemplifies its realism. Hotel Rwanda is not only one of the year’s best films, but the most important film to see, because such events continue in other parts of the world, and the timing of this stunning film could not be more relevant.

It was quite the first day at this Toronto Film Festival, plus a chance to catch up 1:1 with Jeremy Irons, who even confessed that he regretted doing Dungeons and Dragons—but at least he got to finish his Irish castle. Irons also confirmed that will appear in the upcoming feature adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

Tomorrow I catch up with Kate Bosworth and Bob Hoskins, check out Crash with Sandra Bullock, and much more.

Part 3

As the Toronto Film Festival continues, discovering veritable treasures is the object of the exercise and there are plenty to be found, beginning with what to me is not only one of the best films of the festival but one of the year’s best: Alexander Payne’s wonderfully acerbic Sideways. Here is a film that finds hilarity in its abrasive reality, in this absorbing and comic tale of a last hurrah as Paul Giamatti’ s Miles escorts his closest friend Jack [Thomas Haden Church] on a road trip to the Southern Californian vineyards the week of the latter’s wedding. Miles, who has never recovered from his divorce, is middle aged, an aspiring novelist, and a middle school teacher caught in his own quagmire of middle class failure. He lives his wines while friend is determined to sow some long awaited oats much to Miles’s chagrin. But when Miles meets a beautiful fellow wine lover and waitress (Virginia Madsen), maybe his luck will change. Sideways is part love story and part satirical comment on California’s middle class sub culture, but mostly it’s an ingeniously written and perfectly structured screenplay by the masterful Payne. Resisting casting big name stars, he casts actors who are perfect. Academy voters note: Paul Giamatti deserves recognition, for his ferociously honest, human and indelibly deep performance. It’s one of the best male performances of the year. Virginia Madsen proves how luminous she is and is superb in this. Beautifully directed by Payne and lushly shot in the thick of Southern California’s wine district, Sideways is both hilarious and melancholy, but then it’s about life’s extremes and for Payne a triumph.

It was nice to spend quality one on one time with both Giamatti and Madsen. Paul told me he was shocked when he was cast in this and also spoke about working with Russell Crowe and Ron Howard on Cinderella Man, playing Crowe’s trainer. “It seems to me Russell is only happy when he’s acting”, Giamatti told me. As for Madsen, she still looks amazing and talked about being a single mother, her career and now looking for love. Those interviews will run soon.

While it might be a battle to get Giamatti the Oscar nomination he deserves, one thing is certain: Jamie Foxx WILL be nominated for his extraordinary work in Taylor Hackford’s astonishing Ray, the remarkable warts-and-all depiction of the life of Ray Charles. Jamie Foxx (Any Given Sunday, Ali) is Ray Charles in this high-energy portrait of an exceptional man who has become an American icon. Born in a poor African American town in central Florida, Ray Charles went blind at the age of 7. With the staunch support of his determined single mother, he developed the fierce resolve, wit and incredible talent that would eventually enable him to overcome not only Jim Crow Racism and the cruel prejudices against the blind, but also discover his own sound which revolutionized American popular music. Nonetheless, as Ray’s unprecedented fame grew, so did his weakness for drugs and women, until they threatened to strip away the very things he held most dear. This little known story of Ray Charles’ meteoric rise from humble beginnings, his successful struggle to excel in a sighted world and his eventual defeat of his own personal demons make for an inspiring and unforgettable true story of human triumph. Foxx embodies the spirit, flaws and determination of Charles, with every nuance in his being. It’s the purest most complete performance by an actor seen in years. But Ray is also a powerful, richly textured work, a film that takes the biopic to a new level. As remarkable as Foxx is, the actresses who play his women, especially Regina King as the manipulative Margie Hendrix, and Kerry Washington as Della, the woman who would stay with him through Ray’s drug use and womanising, are magnificent. Superbly directed by Hackford, it was no surprise that the film received a standing ovation at its gala premiere, for it truly is a masterpiece and an evocative, deeply moving tale.

Featuring a star-studded cast, Paul Haggis’ Crash, just acquired for North America by Lions Gate, is a wonderfully dark tragicomedy on the cultural underbelly of Los Angeles. Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon and the stunning Thandie Newton are among the stars of this exquisite, beautifully written piece about a disparate group of characters, identified by tragedy, race and LA. The film begins and ends with a dead body and in between, are multi-layered narratives that take the viewer on a compelling journey through this diverse city. Both hilarious and tragic, there is not one bad performance to be found here, and this first time feature director has a solid future in front of him.

After Crash, it was time to catch up with old friends Kate Bosworth and Bob Hoskins, here for Beyond the Sea, before checking Oyster Farmer, a great Australian film which had its world premiere here. A stunning feature directorial debut from Anna Reeves, who wrote this gentle, yet wry comedy/drama, Oyster Farmer is a love story about a young man who runs away up an isolated Australian river and gets a job with eighth generation oyster farmers, falling reluctantly in love along the way. Aussie newcomer Alex O’Lachlan is a star on the rise, the new Russell Crowe, appealing and charismatic as the young Jack, Trying to find himself amidst the lush beauty of the Hawkesbury River. Like with so many Australian films, this one looks gorgeous, shot on location, as the Hawkesbury takes on a life of its own. Reminding one of the classic Sunday Too Far Away, Oyster Farmer is about male bonding, love, sex and mateship. And Jack Thompson returns to Australian cinema, reminding us of how nicely he ages. Oyster Farmer is funny, human, sexy and glorious, one of the best Aussie films in years, and one destined for both local and international success.

When I spoke to director Reeves, she was saddened that representatives of the Australian distributor didn’t even support the film’s first screening, which regrettably says it all about the state of the Australian film industry. Hopefully that’s not a sign of things to come, especially since that distributor didn’t even mention that Oyster Farmer was even premiering in Toronto. If they don’t even care about their own, home-grown films, what does the future hold for gems such as that film and beyond?

Caught up with Dear Frankie, another superb British drama set and shot in the contrasting city of Glasgow. Running away from the father of her deaf son Frankie when he was very young, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) has created a fictional history for her son in which the father is eternally at sea on a ship called the HMS Accra, even as the duo have spent the last nine years moving from place to place in Scotland frequently. Lizzie even goes so far to embellish the fantasy as writing letters every few weeks to Frankie from the fictitious version of his father, entertaining Frankie with tales of far away lands. The fantasy appears likely to be doomed soon, however, when Frankie learns that the real life HMS Accra is due to dock nearby their current home town, so Lizzie sets about to find someone to pose as Frankie’s sailor father, a situation that causes further complications. Featuring another magnificent performance by Mortimer, [Lovely and Amazing and the upcoming Pink Panther], Dear Frankie is a gentle, emotive and beautiful tale of childhood longings and family. Under the precise direction of Shona Auerbach, the film is gentle and well observed, with the stoic Gerard Butler also impressive as the stranger who enters these characters’ lives. Funny and touching, this Miramax release has ‘hit’ written all over it.

It is easy to be impressed by The Assassination of Nixon for all the wrong reasons. As a film, it is certainly flawed, in this latter day Death of a Salesman tragedy about the unfolding of the American Dream. Based on real life events, “Assassination” is set in 1974 and centres on a businessman (Sean Penn) who decides to take extreme measures to achieve his American dream, blaming government on his own failures as a salesman, businessman and family man. Consistently depressing, the film rarely gives us a chance to empathise with Penn’s ultimately doomed character. The film’s main strength is in its performances, and as an acting exercise, Assassination is certainly electrifying. Penn never puts a foot wrong here, and is certainly mesmerising, as is the usually indomitable Naomi Watts, who once again glows as his ex-wife, and Australia’s Jack Thompson is also wonderful as Penn’s salesman boss. The film is as dark and relentless as they come, offering viewers a nihilistic vision of America then, and now. It has moments that are powerful, but commercial prospects for a film so drenched in insistent pessimism, are slim. But for Penn fans, the film is worth seeing if only to bare witness to the raw power and range of his acting.

While Assassination was downbeat, the reverse can be said of Danny Boyle’s Millions, a wonderful fable about childhood, greed, saints and money, in this tale of two young boys, each one dealing with their mother’s death in their own way, who come across some loot from a bank robbery. However, they have only a week to spend it before the UK switches to the euro. This is one of Boyle’s most mature films, one that combines the innocent and purity of childhood, with elegant fantasy and adult sensibilities. Consistently charming, Millions is an exquisite, entertaining charmer of a film, one that is full of surprises. Beautiful to look at, Millions was the perfect way to end a day, before heading off to take a break. Fox Searchlight will release the film in March, and it’s a special film to watch out for.

For this Toronto writer, time is almost up. Off now to chat with Emily Mortimer, check out Todd Solondz’s latest and get ready to bid farewell to another year at Toronto.

My Final Report

As the Toronto Film Festival wraps up for this writer, 18 interviews and almost as many films later, it’s been quite the success. Few really bad films [amongst the ones I happened to see] and once again, Toronto is a well oiled, cinematic machine. One of the highlights at Sundance earlier this year was the psycho-thriller Saw, the directorial debut from a talented young Aussie director James Wan, and co-written by Leigh Whannell, who also plays one of the two key roles, in this eerie and audacious thriller. Carey Elwes plays Dr. Gordon, a mild-mannered and accomplished surgeon. Adam (Whannell) is a young photographer who takes odd jobs to make a living. What do they have in common? They are both chained to the pipes of an abandoned bathroom, somewhere underground, perhaps in some old area of the subway system of New York. They are also both totally clueless as to how they got there, why they are there, and what is to become of them. To make matters worse, there is a man lying dead on the tile floor between them, his head blown open with a self-inflicted gunshot-wound, his hand still clutching the pistol and pools of blood still around his upper body. By using their intelligence, their survival instincts, and some cleverly revealed clues, Adam and Dr. Gordon unravel the mystery that has then trapped, and find out they are toys in a game devised by a clever and manipulative serial killer. The one who wins the game, well, he lives! Serial killer films suffer from tired repetition, but Saw has nothing common with its predecessors. More a genuine thriller which treats the viewer to surprise after surprise, Saw is consistently gripping, intelligent, surprising and genuinely ingenious. Superbly structured and masterfully directed by this talented, young Aussie film maker, this is a film that is original, beautifully paced and as exciting as the likes of Seven and Silence of the Lambs, a genuine rollercoaster ride of a thriller that keeps you guessing to the better end.

I also caught up with both Whannell and Wan at Toronto’s Intercontinental Hotel, the hub of journalistic activity. The two Australians had virtually just arrived from their hometown of Melbourne, but were eager and laughing as we sat near the hotel bar. Both film buffs, they could hardly believe that director Todd Solondz was being interviewed just near us. “We’re not here to gaze at the stars just the directors we admire,” Wan says, laughingly. Whannell says that he wanted to act in the film that he and friend Wan wrote together, “Because I’ve always been a frustrated actor.” The film began as an Australian movie, with locally coloured language and actors, but after struggling for a year to get the film off the ground, their manager suggested America, and Saw was born in the USA. “We wanted to make an Indie, guerrilla film, and I think, even in Hollywood, we achieved that.” Lions Gate will release the film in the US next month, and the movie has been sold internationally to great success. More of my chat with these boys from Oz closer to the US opening of the film.

My final screening was as far removed from Saw as one can go: Imaginary Heroes, an exquisite film about family and loss, from Dan Harris, who scripted X2. But this is no Hollywood blockbuster. Sigourney Weaver is magnificent as the matriarch of a family dealing with suicide, adultery, motherhood and a marriage in need of repair. Perhaps over sentimentalized in parts, the film has a gloriously poetic feel to it, as it treats its material with combinations of dark humour and emotional purity. One can understand why the film is not for everyone, but with Weaver and the always marvellous Jeff Daniels at the helm, Imaginary Heroes is a sublime, captivating and superbly acted family drama. As I was approaching my last flurry of interviews, Jeff Daniels and I spoke about his need to flee Hollywood at the peak of his success and his passion for his Michigan-based theatre company.

While wrapping things up, I bumped into Australian icon Jack Thompson, unexpectedly here because of both The Assassination of Nixon and Oyster Farmer, both films of which he spoke with genuine pride and passion. Of course, nobody told me he was coming, including the Australian distributor of Oyster farmer, determined, one suspects, of not telling anyone about what a special film they had. But Jack, whom I first interviewed nearly 20 years ago, said that if he were to retire now, he’d be happy “because I got to share the screen with Sean Penn.” Thompson also talked about his role in the comic book film Man-Thing, in which he and real-life son Patrick Thompson play the bad guys, in this Australian-shot film. “I’m a huge fan of these kinds of film so it was a joy to work on it,” Thompson said, while sipping beer at the Intercontinental.

My final interview was with Todd Solondz, here with the odd Palindromes. As odd and often funny in person as his films, Solondz admitted, while I laughed uproariously, that at one stage, Drew Barrymore met with him as a possible director of Charley’s Angels. “Had I done it, instead of it taking $300m it would have made 3”, he said, laughingly. The mind boggles!

For this journalist, Toronto came to an abrupt end, but as huge as this festival has emerged, one thing is constant: Audiences here love the movies, and the movies reflect all of our distinct tastes. May it continue to live long and prosper. Until next year, then…

Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.

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