Toronto Film Festival – 2002

| September 8, 2002

8 Women [8 Femmes]
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen
Directed by: Francois Ozon
Distributor: Focus Features (USA Films)
Release Date: September 20
At an isolated mansion in the snowy countryside of 1950s France, a family is gathered for the holiday season, but there will be no celebration–their beloved patriarch has been murdered! The killer can only be one of the eight women closest to the man of the house. Was it his powerful wife, his spinster sister-in-law, his miserly mother-in-law? Maybe the insolent chambermaid or the loyal housekeeper? Could it possibly have been one of his two daughters? A surprise visit from the victim’s chic sister sends the household into a tizzy, encouraging hysterics, exacerbating rivalries and encompassing musical interludes. Comic situations arise with the revelations of dark family secrets. Seduction dances with betrayal. The mystery of the female psyche is revealed. Eight women. Each is a suspect, each has a motive, and each has a secret. One of them is guilty.
Agatha Christie meets Moulin Rouge? Only those wickedly audacious French and an equally audacious director like Francois Ozon can get away with this scintillating combination. To put it simply: There is no movie quite like 8 Women. It is, unquestionably, the most original and hypnotic film of the year, a completely absurdist approach to a specific genre, with an all-female cast of sublime French actresses at their best. They sing, they dance, they connive, they snipe, they bit and they seduce, and that is only the beginning. A visually alluring and intoxicating musical melodrama, 8 Women is as much a comment on the artifice of cinema and theatre, as it is a conventional whodunit. Though, as it becomes clear, Ozon’s breathtaking masterpiece ends up being far less about murder, and far more about the hilarities and secrets of families, women in particular. The psychology of womanhood is as thematically rich here, as its murderous subplot, which only serves as a device to explore the collective psyches of this female menagerie.
The music serves as an enhanced character device, though one suspect that as the film goes out of its way to break convention, some audiences may find that approach off-putting. The physicality of the film is as glorious as its stylized approach to narrative. Ozon’s use of colour and design to further to exemplify setting and character is sublime, and the film’s performances are collectively magnificent. At almost 60, Catherine Deneuve is still glowing, beautiful and a movie star in every sense of the word, but it is Isabelle Huppert who effortlessly steals the film as the dour, consistently complaining sister. Stripped of make up and unrecognisable, Huppert perfectly captures the tragic spinster, and does with comic veuve.
8 Women is elegant cinema at its finest, a perfect soufflé that never goes flat, and remains a deliciously scintillating and original entertainment.
Spirited Away
Starring: Daveigh Chase, Michael Chiklis, Susan Egan, Lauren Holly, Jason Marsden, David Ogden Stiers, Suzanne Pleshette, John Ratzenberger.
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Distributor: Disney
Release Date: September 20
Master animation director Hayao Miyazaki follows up on his record-breaking 1997 film Princess Mononoke with this surreal and intelligent tale about a lost little girl. The film opens with ten-year-old Chihiro riding along during a family outing as her father races through remote country roads. When they come upon a blocked tunnel, her parents decide to have a look around–even though Chihiro finds the place very creepy. When they pass through the tunnel, they discover an abandoned amusement park. As Chihiro’s bad vibes continue, her parents discover an empty eatery that smells of fresh food. After her mother and father help themselves to some tasty purloined morsels, they turn into giant stuffed pigs. Chihiro understandably freaks out and flees. She learns that this very weird place, where all sorts of bizarre gods and monsters reside, is a holiday resort for the supernatural after their exhausting tour of duty in the human world. Soon after befriending a 12-year-old boy named Haku, Chihiro learns the rules of the land: one, she must work , as laziness of any kind is not tolerated; and two, she must take on the new moniker of Sen. If she forgets her real name, Haku tells her, then she will never be permitted to leave.
Who ever said that featured animation was just for kids would not be familiar with the ingenious work of Japan’s ingenious Hayao Miyazaki, and his follow up film may well be the finest animated film to be released in a decade. Apart from Miyazaki’s startling visuals, Spirited Away, which won the well-deserved Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is a profound study of avarice and power in a topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland world, an E.T for today’s generation of cynics, minus the overt sentimentality Hollywood imposes. A multi-themed rich and fascinating tale featuring a collage of whimsical characters, some genuinely monstrous, this is the kind of cinematic animation adults love. Ironically, the second animated film picked up by Disney for distribution [Lilo and Stitch having preceded it], it is a film, that like Lilo, deals with humanity in a surprisingly complex fashion, dealing with a central character whose arc is as detailed as any conventional live action drama. Spirited Away may have been adapted by Disney to avoid subtitles, but the original is still prevalent. There was no attempt to ‘Hollywoodize’ the film, to give it a cutesy, mainstream feel. And at just over 2 hours, Spirited Away is a far more detailed work, in which magnificent visuals and a strong and imaginative narrative, go hand in hand.
The Disney version, which features the voice of Daveigh Chase [Lilo, in Lilo and Stitch, coincidentally], who voices Chihiro perfectly, will receive its North American premiere at next month’s Toronto Film Festival, and is bound to surprise audiences with its genuine darkness, intelligence and rich tapestry. Spirited Away is a masterful and poetic work, beautifully scripted by the remarkable Miyazaki, and features some of the most exquisite examples of animation seen in a while. But at its heart, the film is an Alice in Wonderland for the now generation, a surreal and compelling masterwork that is imaginative and richly entertaining. This is a must see for adults and older kids alike.
Moonlight Mile
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by: Brad Silberling
Release Date: September 27
After the death of his fiancée, a grieving Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) is taken in by his would-be in-laws, Ben and JoJo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon). But when he falls for another woman (Ellen Pompeo), Joe finds himself torn between the past and the future. The story is loosely inspired by the true story of actress Rebecca Schaeffer (television’s “My Sister Sam”), who was murdered in 1989 and to whom director Brad Silberling was engaged.
Moonlight Mile is a film that may have a tough time finding a broad audience, but it deserves to be sought out. Not unlike Robert Redford’s classic Ordinary People, this is a film about a family torn apart, in this case with the aftermath of death. Not as depressing as the Redford film, Moonlight Mile explores the very ordinariness of the family, as it delves into death and the need to get on with one’s life. In the case of Ben Floss [a superb turn by Hoffman], his life is overtaken by a need to enter into a business partnership with his adopted son who was supposed to be his son in law. We all have a need to deal with tragedy in various ways, to put our lives in the hands of others, to either obsess about our work or shut ourselves off. Here, the film’s three characters go through it all, yet the piece does so with a lack of cliché and morose sentiment. Moonlight Mile is a slice-of-life film. Nothing much happens throughout, which audiences used to frenetic pacing, will find tough to view. Yes, it is slow at times, but then so is life, and the remarkable thing about Moonlight Mile is that it is unflinching in its honesty. Amidst the film’s reality, also lay a work that is funny and deeply human, an intricate, richly layered drama about the need to survive, to be truthful and unashamedly honest with ourselves. This is a film about loss and survival, yet at its heart, Siberling’s gentle, deeply personal work is imbued with a final sense of optimism.
The performances are all wonderful; Hoffman and Sarandon have never been better, delivering subtle yet emotionally truthful performances, while newcomer Ellen Pompeo is a major find, all of which is enhanced by Siberling’s understated direction. Though set in the early seventies, Moonlight Mile doesn’t use the period as a means of overtaking the narrative. Music is well used and the film’s art direction is subtle.
An intelligently written and directed film, Moonlight Mile is honest, funny and poignant. Slow for those in the MTV generation, compelling and insightful for the rest of us.
Real Women Have Curves
Starring: America Ferrera (Ana), Lupe Ontiveros (Carmen), Ingrid Oliu (Estela), George Lopez (Mr. Guzman), Soledad St. Hilaire (Pancha), Brian Sites (Jimmy), Sandie Torres (Dona Carlota)
Director: Patricia Cardoso
Screenwriter: George LaVoo
Set in East Los Angeles, this is the story of Ana, a plus-sized Mexican-American teenager who finds herself struggling to break free of the responsibilities and expectations of her mother, Carmen (Ontiveros) and sister, Estela (Oliu). The conflict is between college and work: she wants to study so she can better herself, at Columbia University in New York where she recently won a full scholarship, but she’s needed in the sewing sweatshop that her sister runs, where she, Ana’s mother and other Latina women work laboriously to make dresses that are then sold for many times what the shop is paid to make them. Another complex issue at work in the film is the concept of self-image, and how people can learn to love themselves for whom they are, regardless of their body types or social expectations.
With this Sundance favorite, Real Women Have Curves is a major milestone in Hispanic American cinema. A film that could never have been made within the constraints of mainstream Hollywood with its insistence that all women have to be thin and pretty, Curves dares to take the opposite approach and refuses to apologize. The film’s maternal figure, Carmen, magnificently played by formidable veteran Lupe Ontiveros, is tough on her youngest daughter as she firmly believes that in attempting to embrace the American Dream, you must be thin, married and a mother. In the meantime, college is out, hard work is in. As Ana comes to believe in herself, while rebelling against her mother’s conservative and simple-minded viewpoint, she also learns the difficulties of trying to make it in contemporary America. An unwilling worker in the dress factory run by her older sister, Ada discovers the true meaning of family while determined not to allow herself to remain uneducated. Ada is a wonderful role model for young women who obsess over their looks and forget that it as important to search for one’s inner self than the exterior.
All young women should see this film and find its lessons encouraging, but at the same time, Curves is not a preachy film, but an uplifting, often hilarious study of generational expectations and that seemingly impossible road to self-discovery. Newcomer America Ferrera is a major discovery. Her honest, touching and comedic and human performance is miraculous and refreshing. Hopefully, as she is about to head to university, she will return to acting. For first-time feature director Patricia Cardoso, Real Women Have Curves is a triumph, a wonderful film, perfectly paced, which cinematically expands on the original play from which it comes. Insightful, eloquent and featuring a bravura performance from Ferrera, Real Women Have Curves is one of the best films of the year.
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Day One: Toronto Festival Back with a Vengeance
Coverage By Paul Fischer
Last year was to be a shining moment for North America’s biggest film festival. Twenty-six years old and a grand affair with great films and stars pouring in by the truckload. That is how it began until 9/11 changed all of that. The Festival continued but the mood remained consistently somber. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival, numero 27, has bounced back with a vengeance. It seems that attendance is up considerably from previous years, and more than any time in its recent past, has mainstream Hollywood embraced Toronto by premiering some big guns and bigger stars. From Michelle Pfeiffer and Dustin Hoffman, to Michael Caine and Denzel Washington, the 27th Toronto Film Festival is destined to be as grander and more star-studded than we have seen before. On this, Day One of Toronto, the bustling press floods seamlessly along hotel corridors to schedule their interviews. This is a truly international film festival, with journalists across the US, and far afield as Australia and Europe descend upon this sunny Canadian city, some are just here to attend the big press junkets, others will see dozens of diverse films, and some, like myself, attempt both, plus eat and drink if time permits.
But stars or not, Toronto celebrates cinema, from the pure Hollywood mainstream to the esoteric, the weird and the controversial. And they are all here in clear abundance.
Opening Night is a glitzy affair, but party reveling may be more muted after the black tie social set sits through Atom Egoyan’s Ararat. A stunning film to be sure, a melancholy and intellectual comment on the artifice of cinema versus the reality of history, Egoyan’s films are always a challenge. This one, which Miramax will unveil later in the year, is no exception. A profound tale of history, the complex relationships between parents and children, a vivid account of an unspeakable genocide, Ararat is a masterful, richly complex drama that is hardly for popcorn-munchers seeking escapism. Yet it is a perfect festival film, an intelligent, deeply profound and emotionally truthful work, visually arresting and compelling. Maybe not an ideal opening night film, but a great work nonetheless.
On this first day, it was good to merely see films, forget the stress of organizing the most ridiculous of schedules. France’s Marie-Jo et ses deux amours (Marie-Jo and Her Two Loves) is France’s equivalent of Unfaithful, but emotionally richer, in this tragic tale of a happily married driving nurse who is having an intense affair with a ship pilot. Director Robert Guzdiguian skillfully takes no sides, but captures the intricacies of marriage. Its central character is middle aged and attractive but not beautiful, thus encapsulating the realism of her two relationships. Atypical in its denouement, Marie-Jo is unbearably sad, but impeccably crafted.
Ending on a high note was Neil Jordan’s masterful The Good Thief, starring a wonderful Nick Nolte as an all-time loser. Heroin addict and compulsive gambler, Nolte is about to crack the big time, the ultimate robbery, as long as his shrewd police chief friend doesn’t stop him first. This is Jordan’s best film, dark and seductive, yet sly in its humor and sense of comic optimism. Fox Searchlight has a real winner here, and come next spring, catch this Thief.
Day One draws to a close and tomorrow, interviews and screenings begin in earnest. From the luminous Michelle Pfeiffer on White Oleander, to the magical Maggie Gylenhaal, who makes the perfect Secretary. The 27th Toronto Film Festival is up and running.
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Day Two: Luminous Movie Stars, Kinky Secretaries and a Grim British melodrama.
Coverage By Paul Fischer
Day Two of the Toronto Film Festival was interview-heavy as the studios began rolling out the big Hollywood guns. Warner Bros. White Oleander, based on the best-selling novel, chronicles the life of Astrid (Alison Lohman), a young teenager who journeys through a series of foster homes after her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) goes to prison for committing a crime of passion. Set adrift in the world, Astrid struggles to become her own person while coming to terms with the challenges of living life on her own. A somewhat meandering movie-of-the-week tale, the film has going for it an extraordinary central performance by young newcomer Lohman, who encapsulates the character’s arc to perfection. Michelle Pfeiffer is a luminous presence, and an unrecognisable Robin Wright Penn shines as a hypocritical born-again Christian foster mother. An emotionally muted film, White Oleander is a painstakingly risk-free film, a pleasant non-intellectual affair, but one featuring at least one stand-out performance.
Talking about being at Toronto, Robin Wright-Penn said that she was “grateful for the Festival,” being no stranger to Toronto. “It’s a Festival which is all about the movies, not the personalities,” she explained as we spoke. The actress, who has deliberately shied away from a mainstream Hollywood career (Forrest Gump notwithstanding) leads a celebrity life “by living with Sean [Penn] who, on the one hand, is this incredibly private guy, and on the other has this fucking big mouth. It’s quite a dichotomy.” She also insists that she’ll do whatever she can “to discourage my kids from taking up acting.”
As beautiful as she is on screen, Michelle Pfeiffer is a radiant presence off, a flawless beauty and the perfect actress to play a mother described as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” On the subject of the power of beauty, a dominant theme in White Oleander, Pfeiffer is reluctant to discuss whether beauty can be a weapon, but explains, “I think it can be used as a weapon, but I also think it’s a double-edged sword. But I don’t like talking about it because I feel it’s a no-win conversation. No matter what I say, I can come off sounding like a jerk, but I think it can also be blinding.”
On the other end of the cinematic spectrum (and that’s what is fun about Toronto) lies the dark and acerbic world of Secretary. Bold and sexy, this debut feature from Steven Shainberg is the most uninhibited and audacious romantic comedy of the year. The film revolves around Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who already has a few strikes against her when she applies for a secretarial position at the law offices of E. Edward Grey (James Spader). First, she was only recently released from a mental institution; second, after one day back with her dysfunctional suburban family she has succumbed to her secret obsession — self-mutilation. Somehow, she gets the job anyway. Then again, Mr. Grey is far from a normal boss. They embark on a relationship together, crossing lines of conduct that lead to Lee’s extraordinary development. Gyllenhaal is a revelation as she delivers a brave, raw and simply stunning performance. She admitted that she hasn’t seen the film alone, even now, and saw it initially with her parents and brother Jake, whom she describes as “my best friend and my harshest critic.” While Jake has Moonlight Mile at Toronto, Maggie says, “We always seem to be at festivals where each other’s films are screening.” Next up for the actress is “a complete departure,” in which she stars as a “smart and beautiful, confident young woman” in a new film with Julia Roberts no less.
Finally, I caught up with British melodrama The Heart of Me. Set in 1930’s London, this is the story of Rickie Masters (Paul Bettany), who has long had an affair with his wife Madeleine’s (Olivia Williams) sensual sister, Dinah (Helena Bonham-Carter). An unexpected event brings the two sisters closer together. Beautifully mounted, Heart of Me drags in parts, but otherwise remains an effective and poignant study of British repression versus overt sensuality. This is a performance piece and, after being wasted in Planet of the Apes, Bonham-Carter is magnificent as the rebellious Dinah; Olivia Williams breathtaking as the repressed Madeleine. Beautifully crafted, the film is intensely sad but ultimately optimistic, and boasts some extraordinary performances. The film’s very British tone may make it inaccessible in the US but it should do very well in both the UK and countries such as Australia.
As I prepare for Day Three, Bond, guns and 1950s Americana will be among the highlights.
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Day Three: 007 Comes to Town, amongst Other Highlights of Toronto’s Third, Fun-Filled Day.
Coverage By Paul Fischer
Day TwoAustralian director Bruce Beresford has crafted a fine, bittersweet drama in Evelyn, featuring a very unBond-like performance by Pierce Brosnan. The actor plays Dubliner Desmond Doyle in this true story, a man devastated when his philandering wife abandons their family on the day after Christmas. His unemployment, and the lack ofa woman in the house to care for children Evelyn, Noel and Brendan, make it clear to the authorities that his is an untenable situation. The Catholic Church and the Irish courts decide to put the Doyle children into Church-run orphanages. Although a sympathetic judge assures Desmond that when his financial situation reverses, he will be able to get his children back, money is hard to come by. During that time, Evelyn and her brothers suffer the abuses of living in orphanages while Desmond struggles to secure finances. Now he must battle the courts to get his children back. Brosnan is superb, delivering a multi-faceted performance in this emotive but inspiring film, beautifully put together by Beresford. Talking about the film, Brosnan, who will soon be seen as again 007, admits that doing Bond affords him the opportunity to produce and star in films against type. “They’d think I was too pretty or whatever to play a character like this,” the Irish-born actor says. Brosnan also admitted that he hates talking Bond. “(O)bviously I’ll do what is necessary but it’s the same old stuff and boring old questions.” So when asked what the 25th Bond film, Die another Day, will be like, he sarcastically responds, “fantastic.” That’s Brosnan for you. Pierce Brosnan.
From Brosnan to Michael Moore, another gigantic leap. The film is Bowling for Columbine, and it’s Moore at his irreverent best. With his trademark charm and wit, he sets off on a journey to the heart of the country, hoping to discover why the American pursuit of happiness is so riddled with violence. From a look at the Columbine High School security camera tapes to the home of NRA President Charlton Heston, from a young man who makes homemade napalm from “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” to the murder of one six-year-old by another, this is an alternately humorous and horrifying look at firearms abuse, destined to leave audiences dreading — but expecting — the next breaking news report about a home-grown assassin with a constitutionally-protected Uzi. Ferocious, bitingly hilarious and ultimately disturbing, this stunner of a documentary may well be one of the year’s best. Provocative and infuriating, the film will spark controversy, and that’s fine by Moore, though he admits that “at the end of the day, I make films that I would see on a Friday night and I want audiences to be both entertained and angered.” He may well get his wish.
Parker Posey returns to Toronto with the acclaimed Personal Velocity, which premiered at Sundance. The once-labelled Indie Queen loves going to Festivals, such as Toronto, she explains curled up in a hotel room chair. “I just love the excitement of it all. Toronto is the Festival where the audiences are really, really great.” Posey, who does pottery between film gigs, mentioned her next film, Christopher Guest’s latest comedy, in which he takes jabs at folk singers. “I feel so lucky to work with him and I get to sing and everything. It’ll be great.”
Leaving the best for last, Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven is a truly hypnotic and clever masterpiece. Set in the autumn of 1957, the film revolves around the Whitakers in Hartford, Connecticut. Their daily existences are characterized by carefully observed family etiquette, social events and an overall desire to keep up with the Joneses. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is the homemaker, wife and mother. Frank (Dennis Quaid) is the breadwinner, husband and father. They have two pre-teen children, a boy and a girl. As the story unfolds, Cathy’s pristine world is transformed. Her interactions with her gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), her best friend Eleanor Fine (Patricia Clarkson), and her maid Sybil (Viola Davis) reflect the upheavals in her life. Cathy is faced with choices that spur gossip within the community and change several lives forever. Partly a satire on Hollywood melodramas of the nineteen-fifties, the film is a visually breathtaking work, a poetic yet sardonic exploration of the hypocrisies of American suburbia. A look at tolerance of the time, the film is enveloped in bright imagery that exemplifies the hyper-realism of the work, which is further enhanced by the melodramatic score of Elmer Bernstein. Haynes’ film is an absolute triumph of deliberately old-fashioned narrative, a clever, richly entertaining masterpiece, with a performance by Julianne Moore that is masterful. In all, one of the best films at Toronto, and the year. The perfect way to cap off Day Three.
On Day Four, the younger Gilmore Girl heads to Disney’s Tuck Everlasting, plus much more.
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DAYS 4 & 5: Everlasting Youth, Animated Diversity and a British Legend Take on Toronto.
Disney’s Tuck Everlasting is based on the classic children’s novel and appears to be the perfect Disney film. A slight but engaging parable, one of a handful of studio offerings out of place at this Festival. The film captures the story of Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel), a teenage girl on the cusp of maturity. Winnie longs for a life outside the control of her domineering mother (Amy Irving), and when lost in the woods near her home, she happens upon Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson), a boy unlike any she ever met before. He and his family (William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Scott Bairstow) are kind and generous, and they immediately take her in as one of their own. However, the Tucks hold a powerful secret, and with the mysterious Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley) tracking them down, they fear that the world as they know it could end. Ultimately, Winnie must decide whether to return to her life or stay with her beloved Jesse and his family forever. Great themes are inherent in this sweet, nicely shot but fairly forgettable fantasy, which boasts some fine performances. Pleasant holiday fare it might be, but Festival fare? Not really, it must be said. The press junket was also a staid event, lacking the energy one usually attains, but Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Biedel had some interesting things to say about her hit show.
Further out of place at this Festival was The Wild Thornberries, a very young kids’ animated feature based on a popular TV series known primarily in the US. International success is unlikely. The print screened here was much more of a work-in-progress, with much of the key animation completed, but a lot still to come in time for its Xmas release. This feature movie finds this animated family going on wild adventures around the world. Now 12-year-old Eliza is in Africa where she meets a mysterious shaman who grants her the power to talk to animals. But there’s a catch–if she reveals her gift, she will lose it forever. One day, Eliza discovers that poachers plan to kill an elephant herd with an electrified fence and she and Darwin, her pet chimp, must stop them. Family-friendly and sweet, this Paramount release is so out of place here, it’s a major surprise that the studio screened it at all. Having said that, as far as feature animation goes, Thornberries is a lot of fun with some wonderful environmental messages for kids. It’s a fun-filled Xmas film for young girls in particular.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in town to promote the Sundance favourite Love Liza, talked a little about his next projects, including the upcoming Red Dragon. “I play the tabloid reporter who gets his comeuppance”, he confessed laughingly. “It’s a great story with great people which is why I wanted to do it,” he adds. Hoffman also mentioned how much fun he was having shooting the star-studded Cold Mountain, with Nicole Kidman. A lucky and down-to-earth guy, this Mr Hoffman.
David Cronenberg’s Spider is a tough sit through and a film that polarises audiences. The film tells of Dennis Clegg [Ralph Fiennes] in his thirties and lives in a halfway house for the mentally ill in London. Dennis, nicknamed “Spider” by his mother has been institutionalised with acute schizophrenia for some 20 years. He has never truly recovered, however, and as the story progresses we vicariously experience his increasingly fragile grip on reality, as he recalls a childhood filled with trauma and tragedy. An uncompromising film on any level, Spider is still a tough film. Slow, at times un bearably so, the film’s masterful performance by Fiennes doesn’t compensate for Cronenberg’s overstated direction. A confusing film, Spider will have very limited appeal at the box office.
A highlight of this Festival, and today was a day of many, is Myazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away, a visual tour-de-force of extraordinary depth, a kind of Japanese Alice in Wonderland. Speaking at today’s press junket, the fabled director confessed to a secret loathing of Disney animation. “Their female characters are so weak”, he said. Lead voice actress Daveigh Chase, of Lilo and Stitch fame, admitted to having a great time here, with mother and tutor in toe.
Two great films concluded the evening more than nicely. First up, the remarkable Max, the story of a young artist named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor) and his relationship with a Jewish art dealer and teacher, Max Hoffman (John Cusack) in 1918. As the 29-year-old WWI veteran’s attempts to learn his art fail to match his hopes, Hitler’s interests turn elsewhere… to hatred of Jews, and Germany’s future. A fascinating and compelling political drama which raises some interesting questions about race, art and politics, the film features a searing performance by Noah Taylor, best known in the US for Shine. This is Taylor’s film and he is both subtle and fiery, creating a complex and memorable character in a wonderful, beautifully put together piece. Cusack is fine and Molly Parker haunting as his wife.
Finally, Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American, can best be summed as a masterwork, a stunning adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, and featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by the great Michael Caine, who joined Noyce at the film’s world premiere public screening. Set in Vietnam in 1952 during the Vietnamese liberation war from French rule, this is the story of an opium-addicted British reporter, Fowler (Caine), in love with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong (Do Hai Yen), who is dismayed when a young American, Pyle (Brendan Fraser), seems to have eyes for her as well. A powerful and unpredictable love story, Noyce has kept strongly with the book, and its themes may spook Miramax not to release the film here, which would be a great tragedy. Visually dazzling, this is Noyce’s greatest film in a decade, a stunning, searing, cinematic portrait of colonialism and a country in disarray. Caine is magnificent in this film, and is aided by a superb turn by Brendan Fraser in a tough role. Noyce is king in Toronto, where his Rabbit Proof Fence was screened, and is also receiving acclaim. Noyce has proven with both films that he is a master storyteller and one of the truly great filmmakers of his generation.
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DAY 6: Toronto: The Final Stretch.
First thing in the morning the chance to see Oscar winning legend great Dustin Hoffman cry. The man who wore a dress in Tootsie, was seduced once by Anne Bancroft, was once a president’s man and kept it real as one half of a Kramer duo, showed that even movie stars are human. In Toronto to promote Brad Silberling’s study of grief and family in the understated Moonlight Mile, Hoffman is a man who regales us with stories, who talks in long and uninterrupted flows of narrative, and yes, who shows us his humanity. In Moonlight Mile, Hoffman plays the grieving father of a daughter killed in a freak shooting. Near the end, he says goodbye to his daughter’s would-be fiancé (Jake Gyllenhaal), then immediately turns away from the camera. When asked why he turned his back, the story and memory begin. “I remember that moment exactly, I’ll tell you the story. I like to block out all the business I’m going to do in a scene first: “Okay, I’m packing up my office, I see a photograph of my daughter, I cross to show it to Jake, I say goodbye.’ I walked through it a few times, then Brad [Silberling] said, “Let’s try one for the camera.’ So I go through the scene, I’m not expecting anything, I stand in front of Jake, and suddenly I’m completely overwhelmed, out of nowhere I’m weeping, weeping, I can’t stop, and I have to turn away.”
As he’s saying this, Hoffman’s voice breaks, and one realizes that the great actor’s memory of that day is making him cry as he continues: “Brad is saying, “Where are you going?’ and I’m saying, “It’s over Brad, the scene is over, I can’t do it again, I don’t even want to look at him any more.’ And that’s the take we used.”
“I have six kids and only two of them are left at home, They’re all healthy, but nobody talks to you about the empty bedrooms, nobody warns you what that feels like. You spend your whole life looking over here, at your career, and then one day you wake up and realize you should have been looking over there, and it’s too late.” It was an emotional moment and a highlight of this Festival.
The convoluted Spider was the subject of more interviews. Ralph Fiennes was hesitant, quiet, introspective, denying that the Cronenberg film was risky. After all, he is an actor who loves a challenge. Fiennes loved making the very different Red Dragon. “It’s such a great part, I relished the chance to do it,” he said in an effacing smile. His co-star Miranda Richardson clearly longed to be elsewhere, lounging back on the restaurant chair, more a dispassionate observer than willing interviewee. Suffice it to say, we ended the interview before we told to wrap it up.
Another highlight of Toronto was next: meeting the magnifique Catherine Deneuve. Here for the uproarious 8 Women, Deneuve, a ravishing 59 and sporting a giant ring on her right hand, said that she had enormous fun shooting this quasi-musical thriller, in which she sings. “It was frightening but fun. I wanted to do this film because I was given the chance to do something I hadn’t done before.” Deneuve is an alluring presence, both on and off the screen.
Not a party reveler, I couldn’t resist mingling with fellow Australians at a sir down dinner for Dirty Deeds, a gangster thriller-cum-black comedy, which was a huge, hit in Australia. Bryan Brown and Sam Neill took turns to sit at our table, director Phillip Noyce and Michael Caine were there and the food wasn’t bad either. Then off to the North American premiere of this frenetically paced film, which is about to announce US distribution. Set in 1960’s Sydney, film tells of an Australian gangster whose booming business, buoyed by the influx of U.S. soldiers in town for R&R during their tours in Vietnam, attracts the attention of the Chicago mafia. A frenetic, visually dazzling work by the visceral and inventive David Caesar, Dirty Deeds is original, audacious and clever. Very Australian in its humor, the movie is wonderfully exhilarating. Brown is terrific, hard-edged yet wry and engaging; Sam Neill steals the film as a corrupt cop and Toni Collette is stunning as Brown’s wife. Clearly, all had much fun.
September 11, a day of reflection and a day during which the Festival takes its time to unspool. The first film, fittingly, was The Guys, a beautifully eloquent adaptation of the play in which a fire captain enlists the help of a magazine editor to help write his eulogies for some of those that perished on that most tragic of days. The film opens up the play, but not in an overstated way, and manages to give us the best performance of the festival by Anthony LaPaglia. Those of us who know the actor’s work would be even more impressed by the way in which he so totally inhabits the role of Nick, the bereaved fire captain coming to terms with his own grief and his duty as the leader of the men who perished. Here, LaPaglia is magnificent, both realistically understated, yet at times emotively poignant. It’s a fine, memorable performance in a memorable and powerful work of utter humanity.
Not long after, it was time to chat about Hitler and Tomb Raider with friend and fellow Aussie Noah Taylor. In town to promote Max, it is Noah’s portrayal of the young Hitler that clearly dominated this remarkable film. Taylor recalls being “never more frightened” in taking on the role” but relished the challenge of trying to define what it was that made him who he ultimately became. “I think even had he chosen to be an artist and had not entered politics at all, he would have ended up killing or raping someone. I think we’re conditioned to behave a certain way.” My day of meeting fellow Aussies continued with Bryan Brown and Sam Neill. Brown was lying on the couch when we met, always an enthusiastic talker. No regrets about remaining a part of Hollywood as he was in the eighties? “No way, mate. The reason why I’m still married is because we stayed in Australia.” Bryan is married to Rachel Ward, once a promising star in her own right, she turned her back on Hollywood to forge a life with Bryan, and now she is being recognised as a director. “She’s writing her first feature script which is fabulous, and I’ve optioned a book which would be perfect for her, and I’d be in it. Being directed by Rachel could mean instance divorce, but we’ll see”, he says laughingly.
Sam Neill is a far more pensive soul than Bryan, who took on the small role of the cop in Dirty Deeds “in order to spend a few weeks in Sydney with my mates.” Sam, who calls New Zealand home, was more interested in how I met my wife and why I choose to live in Los Angeles than Sydney. I just reminded him that we give up a lot for those we love.
It was Neill who recommended that I see Whale Rider, a film from his native New Zealand, and from all accounts, one of the hottest tickets of the Festival. Having seen it, I understood why for it remains a true highlight of this Festival. Born out of myth, Whale Rider is ser on the east coast of New Zealand, where the Whangara people believe their presence there dates back a thousand years or more to a single ancestor, Paikea, who escaped death when his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale. From then on, Whangara chiefs always the first-born, always male have been considered Paikea’s direct descendants. Maori writer Witi Ihimaera wrote a novel, which posed the question: What would happen if one such descendant would be a girl?
That is the question that drives Niki Caro’s luminous adaptation. In a wrenching opening scene, a young mother and the male of her newborn twins die in childbirth. Her young husband flees New Zealand in grief, leaving grandparents Koro and Nanny Flowers to raise the sole survivor, a feisty little girl named Pai. (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in the role, but regrettably the grandfather she worships is too busy mourning the loss of the baby boy he expected would lead the tribe to better days and refuses to allow her the chance to prove herself. Featuring a luminous performance by newcomer Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider is a captivating and magnificent achievement. Rarely at a Festival does one have the chance to truly discover a film, but Whale Rider, a cinematic triumph from Niki Caro, is a movie to cherish.
Chen Kaige’s Together was another Festival triumph, a classic triumph-over-adversity tale in which the violin serves as a powerful metaphor. In the film, a young boy Xiao Chun (Tang Yun) born in an ordinary working class family has developed a talent for the violin. His father (Liu Peigi) takes him to Beijing to find the best teacher they can get for him. While he’s in the big city, though, the boy forms a very unusual bond with Li Li, a nightclub girl living next door. Visually arresting, the film is a rich tapestry that explores complex family bonds and the power of friendship. Few professional actors enhance the film’s strong sense of realism, with its broad themes appropriate for a large mainstream audience. Together is a beautiful, poetic and richly rewarding work, far different from the director’s previous Killing Me Softly. Talking the next morning in a hotel restaurant, Kaige conceded that “maybe [Killing me Softly] was a wrong choice.” He has no idea if the film will ever see the theatrical light of day.
Off to the home stretch. Last full day of films and interviews which was not a bad thing. First screening was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. Who would have thought that Adam Sadler and Oscar nomination would be uttered in the same sentence but his performance here is staggering in one of the best films of the year. The film casts Sandler as a small-time entrepreneur who, hen-pecked by his seven sisters, is enraged and unlovable until pudding coupons, a harmonium, a woman with a broken-down car, and a crooked phone-sex operator descend upon his life in one day. This is filmmaker Anderson at his best. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, the writer/director’s shortest film to date, Punch-Drunk Love explores so many facets of humanity seen through the eyes of a perpetually enraged individual who finally discovers love and the propensity to control his anger. Sandler is, to put it quite simply, a revelation in this film, a mature, intelligent and credible actor who takes risks in his performance, and risks that pay off. He is wonderful and key scenes with Emily Watson, as the object of his eventual love, and the masterful Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a sleazy phone sex operator, are superb. Anderson’s own script bristles and crackles with dark, inventive humour, a quiet sense of melancholy and an inherent sweetness. He directs with a smooth and inventive visual feel. No wonder he received the Best Director award at Cannes. Punch-Drunk Love is an extraordinary triumph, and a rewarding, unexpected masterpiece.
Sandler, who never participates in print interviews, did meet the press later in the day, admitting his reluctance to do print interviews, was because he had been burned too often in the past. Here he was relaxed and in good spirits, pleased that at last, his father would read good things about him.
Final screening for this exhausted journalist was Stephen Frear’s Dirty Pretty Things, which returns the acclaimed director to his native Britain and his take on contemporary British society, with this realistic portrayal of the plight of illegal immigrants in London. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian surgeon forced to work two jobs and sublet the couch of a young Turkish immigrant, Senay (Audrey Tautou). However, the film takes a turn as Okwe accidentally discovers a human heart around the U-bend of a hotel toilet, and he and Senay become amateur detectives. Frears excels, as with My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammi and Rosie Get Laid, in delving into the unsettling underbelly of British society. Here, his take on illegal immigration is deftly handled and as disturbing as it is, the film at least manages to be ultimately optimistic. Newcomer Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb in the lead role, but Tautou is the film’s only major flaw, seriously miscast as a Turkish immigrant. But the film is beautifully crafted by one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers, who apologised to me the next morning “for being so grim. I think I need to do a comedy.” His was to be my final interview and one couldn’t ask for a better way to say goodbye to this Toronto Film Festival.
For most journalists covering this festival, Toronto was exhausting. Over 20 interviews and countless films later, we became partial slaves of the Hollywood studios and occasionally reveled in the simpler world of cinematic independence. The opening four days was a series of intense press junkets, and perhaps next year the studios will be a bit more considerate to the needs of the press many of which were there to see films and do smaller interviews. Highlights? Meeting Dustin Hoffman and discovering Whale Rider. Low points? Too little time, too many press junkets, overcrowded press screenings. But through it all, the Toronto International Film Festival is all about the movies, the celebration of the art of cinema. If one remembers that, and attends Toronto in order to savor the diversity of cinema, it’s not a bad way to spend a week or so, and this Toronto was the best in years, for its films represented a cultural diversity prevalent worldwide. I for one will be back next year!

About the Author:

Paul Fischer I've been an entertainment writer going on for three decades. Born in Australia, I began writing for Australian papers and was the first Australian journalist ever to interview both Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1999, and apart from my teaching career, have written for Film Monthly and Dark Horizons.

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