Posted: 09/14/2001


Toronto Film Festival – 2001

by Paul Fischer

Exclusive: Staff writer Paul Fischer attends the 26th annual Toronto International Film Festival.

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Special report by Paul Fischer at the Toronto International Film Festival.
From Hollywood blockbusters to interesting gems, the Toronto International Film Festival remains a cornerstone in cinema culture. With kidney stones and gastritis, intrepid writer Paul Fischer is braving Toronto’s unusual humidity, to see films and talk to the strars. Here is his first report.

Tonight it begins. The fast and the furious of film festivals. Arriving hours before opening night, the first task of a film festival reporter is to sign in, grab your credentials and prepare to fly through the next days. Schmoosing with the publicists is the name of the game, getting your interviews and dealing with a bizarre and frenetic schedule. Film festivals sound like fun, but in this Canadian city, it’s hard work. Opening night arrives, time to dresas up, brave the crowds and welcome in a new year. Previous opening nights have been dissappointments, lackluster films that marred the spirit of the following week and a half.

This year, Canada’s Last Wedding was the choice, and proved an inspired choice. A ferociously dark comedy about the ups and eventual downs of thjree different relationships, Last Wedding begins with three pals in a hot tub as one is about to take the marital plunge. The film ends the same way, but this time the three men have nothing to talk about. Searingly frank and uncompromising, Last Wedding is a brazenly funny and dark work, a mischievious satire with assured direction by Bruce Sweeney, and superb performances by a very talented local cast. Last Wedding was a bona fide hit on opening night.

Acts of terror and a kidney stone haven’t prevented Paul Fischer from filing his next major report out of Toronto.

Day 1
Today was first full day of the Toronto International Film Festival. The 26th year, my fourth. And it all begins with ‘the rounds.’ As an accredited journalist, you get your photo ID, a mailbox and the chance to attend press screenings and score interviews—if you can. Some PR companies are all over you, others less inclined, so the pushing and the schmoozing begins. After the first day, you wonder: Why do I do this? Love of movies, of course, why else? In between it all, it’s time to attend the press screenings. First up from Aussie director Scott Hicks is Hearts in Atlantis. Set in the early sixties and based on a collection of Steven King short stories, the film centers on 12-year old Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) who lives in a Connecticut mill town with his widowed, bitter, self-involved mother (Hope Davis) It’s a time of innocence, and Bobby finds support from his two best buddies Sully (Will Rothhaar) and Carol Gerber (Mika Boorem). When a strange older man, Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves in upstairs, Elizabeth Garfield’s wary, but Bobby’s found a father figure, one with a sense of mystery. Director Hicks loves to tell good stories with fascinating characters, and he fuses both splendidly in this sometimes gentle, sometimes powerful coming-of-age yarn. Beautifully realized, Atlantis is likely to divide audiences who live in a world enveloped by cynicism. Hicks’ film is sentimental to be sure, but with the masterful work of a brilliant Hopkins and young Yelchin, the film works on many levels, and is a quietly beguiling surprise.

Quite distinctive is the superbly written and crafted Business of Strangers, first premiered at Sundance. A superb character study centering around two strongwomen—a business executive past middle age and a young woman just entering adulthood—“The Business of Strangers” is about the camaraderie among women, especially when it comes to confronting men—and the inherent trust they develop, which sometimes isn’t deserved. Out of town on business, Julie (Stockard Channing) learns that the CEO of her company plans to meet her for lunch, an encounter she’s sure means her imminent demise. Instead, she’s promoted, replacing the head of the company as he moves on to do other things. Alone at the hotel, she runs into her assistant, Paula (Julia Stiles), who was inexcusably late that afternoon and summarily fired. Julie apologizes for overreacting, and the two form a tenuous relationship, celebrating Julie’s promotion together. Meanwhile, headhunter Nick (Frederick Weller), whom Julie summoned because she thought she’d need him, is likewise stranded at the hotel, but Paula swiftly puts a halt to his joining their party, confiding that he had raped her best friend in college. Julie is outraged and vows to do something about it, but she’s unprepared for Paula’s actions.

And thus the plot thickens. As much a study of manipulation as corporate power with a sardonic twist, first-timer Patrick Stettner has written and directed a sly and deliciously entertaining dark comedy/drama about power from a woman’s perspective. Sharp and engrossing, the film boasts two remarkable performances from its leads, Channing in particular. It deserves to be seen.

A break for a while. More publicity rounds, a rest and then a special screening of Training Day, as mainstream Hollywood comes to Toronto. Denzel Washington plays a tough, brutal and amoral narcotics cop on the beat in drug-infested Los Angeles, who trains Ethan Hawke as his rookie. Hawke has to question his loyalty to a man with questionable morals. Director Antoine Fuquar has certainly made a less MTV-style film than its predecessors, and the movie raises some frank issues. But Washington reduces his character to a simplistic stereotype, puffing, wheezing, and clapping his hands continuously. Hawke is more effectively restrained, and the film itself eventually heads off the rails as it concludes in pure studio style. A violent but totally unsophisticated film, Training Day is more melodrama than drama. Not the best way to end my first day.

Day 2
Today, a mixture of films and celebs. Novocaine was the perfect film to see at 8.30 in the morning. Steve Martin plays Frank Sangster, a successful Chicago dentist whose untroubled existence comes apart when anew patient, Susan (Helena Bonham Carter), enters his chair. Though seemingly happy with his hygienist fiancé Jean (Laura Dern), Frank is desperate for an adventure and is seduced by Susan before he can get around to giving her a root canal. But after Susan scams him for drugs and her hothead brother Duane (Scott Caan) busts up Frank’s office, the dentist finds himself in an increasingly nasty set of circumstances. A wickedly black comedy with a touch of film noir, Novocaine is a quirky, sexy, fun-filled piece of escapism and little more. Yet it has so much fun mocking familiar territory, that you simply allow it to bubble and rise to the surface. Martin is superb, both droll and interestingly multi-faceted, and Bonham Carter strips away her monkey suit, both literally and figuratively. Well executed by first-timer David Atkins, Novocaine is a comedy with a fair amount of bite.

From that to David Lynch’s eye-popping masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. Plot here is of little consequence, but the result is classic Lynch who sets up several seemingly disconnected scenarios at the beginning. A beautiful woman (Laura Elena Harring) riding in a limo on Mulholland Drive one night suddenly has a gun turned on her by the driver. Moments later, a car full of drag-racing teens crashes into the limo. The woman survives. Dazed and bloodied, she stumbles down the hill and slips unseen into a ’30s style apartment as the tenant, an older woman, is leaving for a long trip. The next morning, a fresh-faced, young blonde (Naomi Watts) arrives at the airport with dreams of showbiz success tucked in her suitcase. She goes tote apartment, which belongs to her aunt, where she discovers the injured woman, who now suffers from amnesia. Meanwhile, a film director (Justin Theroux) has the plug abruptly pulled on a film project when he refuses to cast a certain actress. He then arrives home to discover his wife in bed with a handyman. Other characters lurk on the fringes — an overly friendly elderly couple at the airport; two men in a coffee shop, who have an inexplicable encounter; Watts’ landlady (the great Ann Miller), who tends to pry; and an assassin, whose hit on another criminal goes comically awry. But things and characters aren’t what they seem as Lynch also boldly satirizes Los Angeles and sweep his camera into a fascinating and completely engrossing milieu. This is a dazzling, shimmering masterwork, and the performance of Aussie Watts is the film’s centerpiece. Her metamorphosis, which can only be discussed after seeing the film, is breathtaking. This is her film, and what a performance in one of the year’s best movies, and Lynch’s best work in years.

Time now to skip the movies and chat to those who make them. First up, an audience with stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, both in excellent humor ready to flog Training Day. Finally, off to do some business with strangers, Julia Stiles and Stockard Channing, to be precise, who had plenty to chat about. Julia talked to me about ‘O,’ college life and her affinity with Shakespeare, while Channing talked women in film, West Wing and rumors of a proposed Grease sequel.

A break, dinner and then one last film: Don Boyd’s My Kingdom, a modern reworking of King Lear with Richard Harris as an ageing mobster who carves out his ‘kingdom’ to his two vile daughters. A lethargic and slow moving piece, Harris is dull in this one, and the movie rambles on with its forgettable characters that remain poorly defined. It was easy to sleep after viewing this disappointing bore of a film.

Day 3
Began the morning with a chat with Aussie director Scott Hicks. The well-spoken charmer from South Australia discussed the genesis of his latest project. Always a pleasure.

Back to the movies and another great new film from yet another Aussie director, Gregor Jordan. This time, his Buffalo Soldiers was on show. Set in an army barracks in pre-Berlin Wall Germany, Joaquin Phoenix shines as the small mastermind behind some criminal goings on in the barracks. After all, as he says, war may be hell but peace is boring. Energetically directed by the brilliant young Jordan, Buffalo Soldiers is fast, kinetic and always entertaining and wry. The perfect follow up to his Two Hands. Ed Harris also delivers one of his most surprising performances to date. It was nice to then chat to Gregory, as well as Joaquin Phoenix and Anna Piquing about the film. Phoenix was in his usually playful MOOD. Great guy, by the way.

Then it was off to see two films that dealt with anti-Semitism, albeit in two different ways. Focus is superb. Based on the Arthur Miller novel by the same name, Focus follows Christian but “Jewish-looking” Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) struggles among the hatred and anti-Semitism in his neighborhood. Pitted between the Jewish store owner down the street (David Paymer) and his card-carrying anti-Semite next door neighbor (Meat Loaf) Newman faces difficulty in dealing with inner conflict and conflict around him. Guilt over knowing what’s right but not doing anything battles with wanting to blend in and keep peace with the neighbors. Things gets more complex when he meets and marries Gertrude (Laura Dern) who everyone thinks is Jewish. A film about looking beyond what you see, Focus is a study in bitterness and hatred. Mostly powerful, Neal Slavin’s direction sometimes veers off course, and Dern is rather weak in a complex role, but Macy is the film’s strength. Focus has wonderful moments and thematically, is striking.

The flip side is Time Blake Nelson’s stark and overly grim The Grey Zone. Set in Auschwitz towards the end of 1944, the film revolves around a doctor, along with the Sonderkomando, Jews who are forced to work in the crematoria of Auschwitz against their fellow Jews, and who find themselves in a moral gray zone. Based on the director’s play, The Grey Zone is a tough film to watch. Intensely grim, the film explores some of the most moral crises in the history of twentieth century humanity, and what unfolds is a disturbing, horrifying tale. David Arquette is truly stunning as one of the Hungarian Jews, who establishes himself as a real actor here. Harvey Keitel is interesting as a Nazi officer, but his accent gets in the way of depth of character. Disturbing and tough, it’s hard to know who will see the film, but students of history, and ancestors of survivors will be engrossed. Food for thought, as the day ends in utter cinematic solemnity.

Day 4
First up, a 10 minute chat with Australian actress Naomi Watts, who talked about her lesbian sex scenes and working with Lynch. Always wonderful to catch up. Rest of the day spent in a Toronto hospital dealing with my kidney stone. Pain worsened during World Traveler. The Sinai Hospital was an experience in itself. On a bed caught between a profane crack addict and a woman suffering from dementia, it was an interesting respite from the escapism of movies. At least I discovered my stone was edging its way out. With pain killers in hand, I left in time to catch up with Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders, an often moving account of a group of old mates who travel to the English cast to dispense with the remains of an old mate. Caine is the old mate, and this friendship is shown in flashbacks. While it’s wonderful to see the likes of David Hemmings, Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins and Caine on screen, Last Orders is highly fragmented and a rather slow and muddled affair. But Caine is wonderful; and Hoskins has his moments, in an otherwise forgettable charmer of a film.

Day 5
Which brings us to today, the day that rocked America. The Film Festival cancelled the day’s screenings as we came to terms with what had happened. But life goes on and the Festival will continue tomorrow. After all, why should we let terrorists define our lives? More reports from Toronto to continue.

Day 6
The day after ‘The Terror.’ Business as usual, if there is such a thing. The shock never disappears, but at least those of us here at Toronto can remain hidden in the dark. Cinema offers us a refuge from acts of barbarism, if only for a few hours. But the day began with the best film of the Festival: Lantana. This flawless Australian masterpiece, which Lion’s gate will release in the US on December 21, is a powerful detailed study of betrayal, human frailty and the profound complexities of human relationships. A multi stranded series of seemingly disconnected narratives that become clarified as this assured film develops. At the center of the film’s complex narrative is police officer Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), a man desperately afraid of his own mortality, married with two sons, who seeks something new in an affair with the desperately lonely Jane (Rachael Blake). Leon’s wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) feels the dissatisfaction in Leon, and seeks assurance through a therapist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), who is struggling with her own problems, such as the murder of her child and her marriage to the dour law professor John (Geoffrey Rush). From here we delve deeper into the web of characters that includes Jane’s neighbors Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci), her estranged husband Pete (Glenn Robbins), another of Valerie’s patients Patrick (Peter Phelps) and Leon’s police partner Claudia (Leah Purcell). This slew of characters, each with their own stories to tell come into sharper (and more successful) focus once one of them disappears, and Leon and Claudia become involved in the subsequent investigation.

Part thriller but primarily a multi layered character study, Lantana is a perfectly realized study of our own humanity, one that strikes a chord in all of us. Ray Lawrence’s first film since Bliss, 16 years ago, Lantana is a sublime achievement, understated in its cinematic direction, a work in which the substance of character rises to the top. Performances are faultless, with LaPaglia delivering his finest, most intricate and subtle work to data. It’s extraordinary to watch him as he digs beneath the surface. He is matched by the emotionally resonant work of Kerry Armstrong, the brilliantly understated performance of Rush, and the other fine performances by Lawrence’s remarkable cast. Beautifully written by Andrew Bovell and assuredly, honestly directed by Lawrence, Lantana is a haunting, moving and incomparable masterwork, deserving of all the critical acclaim bestowed upon it.

Following the screening I was able to catch up with director Lawrence, who spoke of his 16-year old hiatus, which culminated in Lantana.

One other film last night, Istvan Szabo’s Taking Sides, based on the Ronald Harwood play about set in the aftermath of World War II. Harvey Keitel is wonderful as an American de-Nazification officer, who is determined to find guilty a renowned conductor who may or may not, have been a Nazi sympathizer during the war. The film chronicles the cat and mouse game that ensues between them. Not as cinematically interested in Szabo’s Sunshine or his earlier Mephisto, the film is still a powerful and fascinating drama. Keitel is strong, here, and a perfect balance to Stellan Skarsgård’s tragic conductor. Insightful and intelligent, Taking Sides is a tough sell, but a rewarding experience.

End of another day as the Festival enters its final few days.

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

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