Posted: 09/07/2005


Toronto Film Festival – 2005

by Paul Fischer

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The 30th Toronto Film Festival is underway and not with a whimper but a bang. This year, to coin an old studio mogul, Toronto promises more stars this year than in heaven but as usual it’s all about the movies more films that this journalist can hope to cover. Here’s the preliminary wrap-up from Day 1 beginning with Proof.

This highly intellectual film reunites Gwyneth Paltrow with her Shakespeare in Love director John Madden in this stunning adaptation of the critically acclaimed play. Revolving around the brilliant daughter of a schizophrenic mathematician (Anthony Hopkins), Proof explores both the emotional fragility of that relationship in its study of what is sanity and reality. Cinematically broadened from the play, Proof is a richly layered and quite magnificent work, both poignant, witty and compelling in its dramatic power. Come Oscar time, Paltrow is a strong contender for another nomination, for this genuine triumph, though understandably a film that will baffle some audience members and critics alike.

It has been almost thirty years since Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, Oliver Twist, reached the big screen [previously as the musical Oliver!] The new version, premiering at Toronto, is a faithful adaptation, lavishly crafted by Roman Polanski. The Dickensian world of an impoverished and class conscious Victorian London as seen through the eyes of the orphaned Oliver, has been told here with an elegance and dramatic power that Polanski brings to the table. His 19th century world has been beautifully and realistically re-imagined on location in Prague and so visually this Twist is a ravishing work. But within its visuals lay a dramatic core of strong narrative and well loved characters played by a superb ensemble of British actors. However the film is Ben Kingsley’s, unrecognizable in face and voice as Fagin. Kingsley is remarkable having created a Fagin who is menacing, darkly comic, tragic and surprisingly human and has not been this good in years. But with the help of the delightful Barney Clark as Oliver, a truly malevolent Jamie Foreman as the insidious Sykes and a heartbreaking Leanne Rowe as Nancy, coupled with a multi layered screenplay by Ronald Harwood, as Polanski’s Oliver unfolds so magnificently, audiences, too, will be asking for more.

Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic is the perfect Midnight Madness film for Toronto. irreverent, shameless, sexy and outrageous, Silverman proves she is the comic for a generation of political incorrectness. she pokes fun at anything taboo from AIDS and anal sex to 9/11 and the Holocaust. she may not be the picture of the nice Jewish girl which makes this brazen young woman so appealing and unique. Her Jesus film is simply brilliant in terms of its unashamed and twisted view of contemporary America. as a film it suffers from a low budget feel but in some ways the look of the film enhances Silverman’s own authenticity. Bitingly hilarious Silverman pulls no punches in this wonderfully outrageous and consistently ingenious work by a true comic star.

Set in a 19th century European village, this stop-motion, animated feature follows the story of Victor, a young man who is whisked away to the underworld and wed to a mysterious Corpse Bride, while his real bride, Victoria, waits bereft in the land of the living. Although life in the Land of the Dead proves to be a lot more colourful than his strict Victorian upbringing, Victor learns that there is nothing in this world, or the next, that can keep him away from his one true love. In terms of tone, Corpse Bride is both playfully British in its social commentary on class, wealth and love, yet remains pure Burton with darkly sardonic sense of humour and visual wealth of grotesque characterization. a feast for the eye with muted colour representing the world of the living and a rich palette of reds and other bright hues for the dead in which inhabits the film’s central character. As hilarious as it is strangely poignant, Corpse Bride is stunningly imaginative and exquisitely entertaining. in all a work of art in every way.

Toronto Film Festival Report, Part 2
The Toronto International Film Festival is well and truly up and running with many a film journalist frantically covering both studio junkets and the Festival. it’s a tough balancing act trying to see Festival films, interview for the studios and support lesser known films all in a concentrated period of time. but exhausted and bleary eyed as this reporter continues to be, he is managing to do what is needed to cover a festival that both reflects Hollywood’s mainstream and independent sensibilities.

As a festival journalist first stop remains the perennially friendly press office. Here one signs it and then it’s time to hit the floor running. There are publicists to see at the Intercontinental Hotel, interviews to confirm or cancel and then head to the first screening of the Festival: Steve Martin’s Shopgirl which audiences have been clamoring to see for over a year. Based on Steve Martin’s best-selling novella, “Shopgirl” is a story of love in the modern age. Mirabelle (Claire Danes) works the glove counter at a high end department store in Beverly Hills, selling things that nobody buys anymore. An artist struggling to keep up with even the minimum payment on her credit card and student loans, she lives a quiet life and keeps to herself until a rich, handsome fifty-something named Ray Porter (Martin) sweeps her off her feet. Mirabelle revels in the attention, the sex, and especially, being in love, but somewhere, subconsciously, she realizes that the relationship cannot last. Soon, she has to make a decision: will she stick with Ray, hoping that his feelings for her might grow, or does she take a chance with Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), an aspiring musician who may offer more? Quietly elegant and unusually sexy, Shopgirl is a film for grown ups, pure and simple. Not for everyone, it’s a film that explores loneliness, detached love, sexuality and the longing for love that few films offer. Beautifully crafted and featuring exemplary performances, the film gives us a glimpse of a sexy, fragile and luminous Danes, who shines here, while Martin is subtle and compelling. Deeply moving and remarkably mature, this Shopgirl is wonderfully rich and evocative of the kind of pure romance rarely seen in Hollywood. It remains a deeply affecting, near masterpiece.

The next day began with the press junket for Flightplan not part of the Festival. Jodie Foster was in good spirits as we spoke about her films, kids and yes, she admitted that her long-awaited Flora Plum directorial project will eventually go ahead. More on that interview later in the week. I left that junket before it ended to catch up with the brazenly outrageous Sarah Silverman, here for the screening of her stand up comedy film Jesus is Magic. Silverman did not disappoint as she spoke candidly about her teen years, being a successful comic and her two day stint on Chris Columbus’ Rent, no less. That interview will run in its entirety prior to the November launch of Jesus in the US.

More films screened again exemplify the polar opposites of this Festival. You can’t go more mainstream than the Curtis Hanson sisterly comedy In her Shoes. yet it’s also one of the most satisfying and exquisite comic gems of the year in its tale of two opposite siblings whose disjointed lives come together meeting a grandmother neither knew existed. Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette perfectly complement each other as both play these rich characters with sublime precision. Diaz in particular is a revelation here, deliciously sexy, funny and poignant. she emits a Marilyn Monroe quality here and acts as a superb foil for Collette’s more frumpy and pragmatic older sibling. Beautifully directed by Hansen, In Her Shoes moves fluidly taking its time to develop and enhance a real sense of character. In all a wonderfully comic yet truthful work that is a must see for men and women alike.

Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto is the often touching tale of young Patrick “Pussy” Braden, who flees Ireland for London during the politically tumultuous 1970s on a quest to find love and a place to call home. There he becomes a transvestite prostitute and gets involved in an IRA bombing campaign. Based on Patrick McCabe’s critically lauded novel, Jordan’s film adaptation is a flawed but still compelling work, thanks to an arresting performance by Cillian Murphy in the title role. This is Murphy’s film, as he explores the complexity and duality of a tragic character, caught up in the midst of Irish political and social turmoil. While the film tends to meander at times, it remains a fascinating work, and one of the director’s most intriguing look at the Irish political landscape, as seen through the eyes of one beautifully drawn character.

From transexuality and politics to romantic love, it was time to catch up with Steve Martin and Claire Danes, thoughtfully discussing Shopgirl. Martin would say nothing about upcoming projects, while Danes happily defended her first nude scene in the film and talked about what it is she looks for in Hollywood. Both interviews will run soon. After a brief break, it was time to check out Capote, which explores the famed author’s relationship with the two killers he would write about in his last complete book, In Cold Blood. On November 15, 1959, the brutal murder of a family in a small Kansas town sent shockwaves through the nation and captured the attention of one of the most distinctive minds of our time. One-of-a-kind author Truman Capote was sent to Kansas to pen an article about the crimes for The New Yorker magazine. He ended up writing one of the most celebrated books of the century. Capote follows Truman Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) on his odyssey to create the landmark bestseller “In Cold Blood.” With signature style and mordant wit—and his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) in tow—Capote attempts to charm the locals and work his way into the story behind the murders. He’s soon shocked, however, to find himself forming a friendship with one of the killers, Perry Smith . As the book nears completion and execution day approaches, Capote finds himself torn in directions he never anticipated and is forever changed by his experiences. Directed by Bennett Miller, the film’s strength lay in the performance by Hoffman, a strong contender for an Oscar nod. Hoffman captures the pure essence of Capote, vocally and physically, while at the same time adding emotional shades to the character. Hoffman’s astonishing performance is at the heart of a film that is likely to have a tough time at the box office. A slow moving, intellectual character study, the film is engrossing enough, but it is not an easy film to suffer through, as it moves along ponderously and almost too methodically.

The next day, I began with three screenings in a row, which are all unique, exemplifying a distinct voice. The History of Violence is Canadian director David Cronenberg’s most satisfying film in years, a masterful, entertaining and exhilarating take on the gangster genre. This often explosive drama stars Viggo Mortensen as a pillar of a small town community who runs a diner and lives a happy and quiet life with his wife (Maria Bello) and two children. But their lives are forever changed when Mortensen thwarts an attempted robbery and is lauded as a hero by the media, attracting the attention of some mobsters (William Hurt and Ed Harris) who believe he is someone else. Mortensen is a superb anti-hero of sorts in Cronenberg’s visceral interpretation of the popular graphic novel. Sexual, violent and atmospheric, the film examines the psychology of violence in its purest film, while building to a series of stunningly executed moments. The film teases and tantalizes the audience, creating often exquisite characters that are savage, tender and darkly funny. Beautifully crafted and tensely directed, History of Violence is an energetic, unpredictable and deliciously fun ride of a film that manages to be both mainstream and original all at once.

Fans of Oscar winner Cate Blanchett will be pleased to see her at the top of her game, and in her first Australian film since 1997’s Oscar and Lucinda. From remarkable director Rowan Woods [The Boys] comes Little Fish, which has just opened in Australia, and is searching for US distribution. How do you learn to love again when the pain of the past won’t let you go? When you’re 32 with a troubled history and a doubtful future, it’s a question that isn’t so easy to answer. And for Tracy Heart [Blanchett] it’s a question she can no longer ignore. After four years of treading water and redeeming herself in the eyes of her family, she has set herself the humble dream of owning her own business. But her dream soon becomes tangled with people from her past and the demands of the future with shattering consequences. An often tragic, sad tale of human desperation in Australian suburbia, Little Fish represents, yet again, the very best in Australian movie making. Blanchett reminds one of how subtle and nuanced she can be, playing someone grounded in a detailed reality. She is sublime as she visually carries the weight of a woman who has clearly suffered in life, and as an audience member, you believe in her, absolutely. But it is Hugo Weaving who proves how versatile and magnificent he is, as he plays Tracy’s junkie lover. One can only hope that the film garners him the attention he deserves, as he gives a deeply affecting, honest and remarkable performance. This is acting at its finest, no movie star turns here, just a detailed, terribly sad portrait of a man at the very edge of despair. Sam Neill and the wonderful Noni Hazelhurst also in fine form, in this exquisite, gentle and tragic portrait of humanity.

After his disappointing Brothers Grimm, idiosyncratic visionary Terry Gilliam takes on a twisted and macabre Alice in Wonderland of sorts, with his Tideland, which he shot while taking a break from directing Grimm. In this cinematic odyssey, a young girl named Jeliza-Rose is transported to her grandparents’ farm following her mother’s drug overdose. Once there, she embarks on a fantastic voyage into a world of bog men and disembodied Barbie heads, following the added drug overdose of her father. It would be fair to say, that Tideland is unlikely to do well in America’s Midwest. It is a fractured, bizarre and totally strange film that audiences will either embrace or detest. There is unlikely to be much of a middle ground, but then it seems that’s the way Gilliam likes it. A complete original, even his detractors have to meet that in his own way, he’s a genius. It’s easy to define Gilliam’s latest film as Alice in Wonderland on crack, and it partly is, but it is also a ravishingly beautiful work, featuring a dazzling performance y 10-year old Jodelle Ferland, who gives the kind of mature performance that few veteran actors could hope to deliver. She is quite the find. One can forgive the film’s disjointed quality, because it remains an ambitious and visually arresting piece, and a film that indeed defines Gilliam as a truly original voice.

Back to interviews, beginning with director Michael Caton-Jones, here for what he calls his best film to date, the Rwanda set and shot Shooting Dogs. A wonderful director, Caton-Jones also discussed his next project, somewhat different, Basic Instinct 2, of all things. “After Rwanda I was in the mood for some sex”, the often droll Scot said, laughingly. He admitted “there’s lots of sex and Sharon looks amazing in it. It’s set in London and has a totally different look from the first one.” The director happily conceded that “I’m prepared for a critical bashing” but he didn’t seem to care. “Sometimes you have to work to pay the rent and Sharon and I needed each other, it’s that simple.” A fascinating interview to be sure! Following Caton-Jones I spent some time with an exhausted but always good-humored Terry Gilliam, who spoke out against “a destructive media” that criticized Brothers Grimm by detailing his woes with the Weinstein brothers. “That’s just bad journalism.” Gilliam also confirmed that his Tideland producer Jeremy Thomas, is now on board with his long awaited Don Quixote, which may be resurrected soon. He wouldn’t give casting details, except that Quixote would be played by a European, and smiled when I mentioned Gerard Depardieu.. “I have some ideas”, he quickly conceded.

Finally, one last screening and possibly the best so far: Giving his best performance in a decade, Anthony Hopkins stars in the true story of New Zealander Bert Munro, in Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian who invests some two decades building a 1920 Indian motorcycle. He then travels to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where he sets the land-speed world record in the 1960s. Filled with an irrepressible sense of humour, Hopkins gives an astonishing performance, in a film that haws the potential to be the most talked about New Zealand film since Lord of the Rings. A deeply moving and enriching tale of ideals and perennial optimism, this film about a man refusing to give up on his dreams, is a classic tale of the real underdog, but is it not a tale of fiction. Donaldson’s refreshingly authentic script, which he began writing in 1979, captures the spirit of a man deeply committed to fulfilling a life long dream while touching those he meets with his wit and deep humanity. Hopkins plays him with a rich gusto we rarely see and it’s the kind of performance we miss from an actor who has played so many morose, quiet characters. A wonderfully exuberant, emotive and richly evocative work, The World’s Fastest Indian is one of the best films of the year.

As Toronto continues, I sit down with actor Anthony Hopkins and director Donaldson, not to mention hear from Johnny Depp and company on Corpse Bride, chat to Liam Neeson and check out The Last Hangman, amongst others. Watch this space!

Toronto Film Festival Report, Part 3
First time director Shane Black’s Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a richly dark satire on Hollywood film noir and one of the year’s most refreshingly wonderful surprises. in this quirky fun-filled ride of a movie, a petty thief (Robert Downey jnr) posing as an actor, is brought to Los Angeles for an unlikely audition and finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation along with his high school dream girl (Michelle Monaghan) and a detective (Val Kilmer) who’s been training him for his upcoming role. Kiss, Kiss pays homage to classic pulp fiction inspired films as well as the buddy film populated by the Lethal Weapon films penned by writer/director Black. The pairing of Downey and Kilmer is a stroke of genius as both are clearly in their element here doing some of their best work in years. Relative newcomer Monaghan is a revelation a hypnotic, sexy and alluring presence. Beautifully crafted by Black, Kiss, Kiss is a smart, sexy and often hilarious entertainment that pokes fun at genre, Hollywood and movie conventions such voice over narratives.

The rest of the day was spent catching up with the stars, beginning with none other than Anthony Hopkins. Sometimes reserved and even prickly withy the press, this time around, he was relaxed and in good humour, as we chatted at length about The Fastest Indian in the World, a film that he clearly loves. Occasionally talking in the New Zealand accent he sports in the film, Hopkins was a total delight, also mentioning high hopes for All the King’s Men, shot in flood-stricken New Orleans, his participation in the Bobby Kennedy film Bobby, his passion for music and his hope to bring Shakespeare’s King Lear to the big screen. More on Hopkins later on. While Hopkins was a pure delight, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, on the other hand, was not. Usually affable, he appeared gruff and unwilling to answer questions that seemed harmless. He did admit he was relishing the role of playing the bad guy in Mission Impossible. But generally, it was a strange interview from the surly Mr Hoffman. It was then time to catch up with Liam Neeson, in town for Neil Jordan’s Breakfast at Pluto. Quiet and reserved, Neeson did say he was looking forward to two projects, a Western he’ll be shooting with fellow Irishman Pierce Brosnan and Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln biopic, which he confirmed would go from Lincoln’s inauguration to his assassination.

After a brief break, it was time to cover the junket for Corpse Bride. Johnny Depp was wearing a large hat, sported a thin beard and was in a good mood as he talked about the film, and said that Pirates, both of them, were looking good, while Tim Burton conceded he had nothing on his plate. Corpse Bride interviews will be posted very soon.

Managed to see one film before calling it a night: and what a film: Harsh Times, executive produced and starring Christian Bale, opposite Six Feet Under’s Freddy Rodriguez. The film follows Mike Alvarez (Freddy Rodriguez), unemployed and looking for a job, and Jim David (Bale) who has just been accepted by the DEA to do his share of the dirty work in Columbia. A pair of hell-raising beer-drinking screw-ups with time on their hands, they spend a few days riding around Los Angeles, causing trouble and leaving havoc in their wake—until it all catches up to them and the good times turn harsh. The directorial debut of screenwriter David Ayer, here is an uncompromising and raw study of male friendship, treated with a visceral and brilliant power. Featuring explosive performances by the pair of leads, Harsh Times is tough, honest, real and captivating. This is pure Indie cinema at its best, not a Hollywood crowd pleaser but then it doesn’t try to be. It’s a superb debut from a real find of a film maker.

More interviews to begin the day, beginning with Guy Pearce and musician/screenwriter Nick Cave who talked with much enthusiasm about the new Aussie film The Proposition. Cave also admitted he’s working on a new script but no details, except that it would not be set in Australia. Then it was off to meet another Aussie, Hugo Weaving, whose film Little Fish was screening here. But we also talked at length about V for Vendetta, which opens in March, and he discussed the challenges of working with a mask. “You don’t even see the guy’s eyes but he does a lot of talking. It was a very interesting character.”

Then finally, in preparation for my interview tomorrow with Kevin Bacon, saw the controversial Where the Truth Lies, from director Atom Egoyan. Part film noir, part erotic thriller, the film tells of a female journalist trying to uncover the truth behind the breakup, years earlier, of a celebrated comedy team after the duo found a girl dead in their hotel room. Though both had airtight alibis and neither was accused, the incident put an end to their act. Incredibly sexy and consistently entertaining, the film does tend to weave through moments of incomprehension, but through solid work by Bacon and Colin Firth, the film works as a stylish and enthralling erotic thriller. Whether it deserves its NC-17 rating in the US is another question, but when it comes to sex, the MPAA remains behind the times as usual.

Tomorrow is this journalist’s final day at Toronto, preparing for the real world of LA junkets, but a final blast of interviews include Keanu, Tilda Swinton, Timothy Spall, Gretchen Moll, Freddy Rodriguez and Kevin Bacon. A journalist’s day here is never done.

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

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