TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2001 (Part I) Send This Review to a Friend
The challenging but illuminating experience of choosing from the hundreds of films at the 2001 edition of the prestigious, sprawling Toronto International Film Festival yielded enough favorable results to indicate that audiences are in for numerous treats during the coming period of commercial releases. I previewed an eclectic array of films, some disappointing to be sure, but others worth celebrating for an assortment of reasons.
Sadly, the Festival was interrupted by the horrific destruction of New York's World Trade Towers, and many of us stood around at various Festival locations shuddering in disbelief at the carnage. Colleagues felt a need to ask, "Are you all right?" as we passed one another and reached out to provide momentary comfort. The Festival management wisely postponed certain events and then continued with others in an attempt to share the pain but also to go forward. From the moment of the attack on the morning of September 11 this could not be a Festival as usual.
But in the final analysis there were the films that we managed to see. One of my favorites was the Iranian BARAN by the superb director, Majid Majidi, who has given us such past gems as "Children of Heaven" and "The Color of Paradise." In the movingly understated and convincingly acted "Baran" writer-director Majidi reveals the lot of Afghan refugees through the perspective of a young Iranian teenager named Lateef, played with a mix of innocence and mischief by attractive Hossein Abedini. He works at a construction site where Afghan workers are employed illegally and exploited. Memar, the boss (Mohammad Amir Naji), on the one hand extends kindness but also only doles out portions of the wages due.
In addition to being a poignant and powerful insight into the fragile existence of the displaced, "Baran" is a delicate love story that develops between Lateef and a beautiful young girl told mainly through eye contact rather than dialogue. It is also a tale of Lateef's growth as a human being and of his ability to sacrifice without wanting recognition for his deeds. This is a rare and sensitive work that adds to the growing reputation of Iranian cinema.
Another triumph with a strong ethnic character is Mira Nair's exuberant MONSOON WEDDING, exhilaratingly entertaining while steeped in the ritual of a wedding in India and replete with the intricacies of family life and conflict. Director Nair, bending some of the co-called Bollywood traditions to her own vision, depicts a situation in which Aditi (Vasundhara Das) is about to marry a young man she barely knows but is still winding up an affair with her older, married former boss. She believes her marriage should start out with honesty and that she should tell her finance about the affair and her latest tryst. How will he react?
The film thrives on the assorted portraits of family members, the inevitable crisis, the different levels of coping, the longings of Aditi's parents and the colorfulness of the wedding itself, which takes place in the midst of heavy rain. Rich in a musical score, the film oozes warmth and even contains dance sequences, but the dancing and music are entwined with the story according to Nair's concept, not dragged in as they are in so many typical Bollywood films. "Monsoon Wedding" has all the ingredients for a popular film that can be enjoyed everywhere.
The most daring of what I saw was Michael Haneke's THE PIANO TEACHER, featuring a startling, risky performance by Isabelle Huppert. She is absolutely superb in a role that many an actress would not have dared to play. Huppert portrays Erika, an austere, demanding and outwardly cold piano instructor who has a love-hate relationship with her mother (Annie Girardot). Walter (Benoit Maginel), a handsome student, falls for her but little does he know what he's in for. Erika is revealed to be a masochist given to self-mutilation and wild subservient fantasies. She also is capable of mutilating others.
Huppert gives one of the best performances of her illustrious career in this bold film that doesn't shrink from upsetting scenes and does not spare the sex involved. Both Girardot and Maginel are also strong. The problem is that many will find a few scenes tough to watch, but that is a credit to the film for being so unflinching.
The great French actress, Jeanne Moreau, has an impressive role as the late writer Marguerite Duras. In Josee Dayan's CET AMOUR-LA Moreau enacts Duras in the last years of her life, with the film concentrating on her relationship with a much younger lover and devotee, Yann Andrea (Aymeric Demarigny), in whom she finds comfort when she is not kicking him out in order to retreat into loneliness, which at times seems to be the best way to face her impending death.
This is certainly a tour de force for Moreau, who gives us a picture of the influential writer as a proud woman at times filled with self-doubt but very conscious of her importance. She is in urgent need of love, and Moreau makes her worldly, yet quietly desperate and bent on preserving her dignity against the humiliation of illness and death. Dayan's screenplay is written in the haunting, poetic style that Duras used in her writing, making the result a fitting blend of character and technique. The film was inspired by Andrea's book of the same title. Think of it as an intellectual "Harold and Maude."
Concentration on the unusual is also a characteristic of various American-made films. NOVOCAINE, written and directed by David Atkins, stars Steve Martin as a dentist whose life plunges into a morass after he succumbs to the temptations of a drug-addicted patient (Helena Bonham Carter), who sees him as a source of supply. Laura Dern plays his girlfriend and assistant. The movie, which mimics a film noir style but with an updated look and mood, veers into a mystery-thriller with a comic bent.
There are some grisly moments that are also funny, and Martin plays the role in a perfect manner, partly laid back and partly frenzied. The plot has its amusing intricacies involving the dentist's brother and the brother of the patient fatale. "Novocaine" makes for welcome, oddball entertainment.
One of the best of the Festival films is IN THE BEDROOM, which has a superb cast and a gripping atmosphere. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson play a couple, Ruth and Matt Fowler, whose son Frank (Nick Stahl) has taken up one summer with Natalie, a woman and mother who is separated from an angry husband (William Mapother). Marisa Tomei plays her in a dramatic performance that is her best to date. Frank's mother is against the relationship and events lead to tragedy.
The drama turns on the issue of whether justice can be served, and it is difficult to discuss the film without giving away the plot. But the disturbing question of the law versus taking matters into one's hands is on the agenda. Spacek and Wilkinson are terrific, and the film is a very impressive feature debut on virtually all counts by Todd Field as co-writer (with Rob Festinger), director and co-producer.
An even more jolting film is THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS, in which Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles give searing performances as two characters in an intense power struggle involving the pressures of business and the pressures of being upwardly mobile as women. Channing plays a top level executive, Stiles portrays an angry young employee, and after their paths meet emotional hell breaks loose as the younger woman manipulates her senior and unleashes behavior that the older woman wouldn't have thought she had in her.
The explosive situation involves a male headhunter (Frederick Weller) who doesn't know what's raging about him and stumbles into a dangerous situations rife with resentment, hate and lurking violence. "The Business of Strangers" is an auspicious directorial debut for Patrick Stettner, who also wrote the taut screenplay.
The film's dark element reminded me of some works by David Mamet, who also had a film in the festival, this one a classy and earthy crime caper film. HEIST stars veterans Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito and Delroy Lindo, as well as Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Pidgeon and Ricky Jay, in a tale of double-crossing and danger. The angle itself is a worn one--a criminal trying for one last big haul so that he can sail off into the sunset with the woman he loves. But in Mamet's hands--he also wrote the screenplay--the ingredients seem as fresh as if the idea had never been thought of before.
Mamet writes crisp, believable dialogue, and with his cast of pros everything works. One gets caught up in the convolutions, and no matter what, Hackman's presence makes you root for his character against whatever betrayal he encounters. He's a thief, but what the hell, you want him to succeed. Ricky Jay, who also is known as an expert on con games and on occasion does a one-man theater show, is particularly enjoyable here as one of the criminal associates. To be sure, the film has its violence, but Mamet makes it all entertaining.
Many don't realize that Arthur Miller wrote a 1945 novel called "Focus," and the Festival showcased the film FOCUS, made from his book and directed by Neal Slavin. The story takes place during World War II and is a tightly constructed drama depicting the evils of prejudice, specifically anti-Semitism, and the fear that grips individuals caught up in the results.
William H. Macy gives a quiet but strong performance as an office worker who is judged too Jewish-looking when he wears glasses and his job is imperiled. Laura Dern comes into his life as a sexy young job applicant who is also discriminated against. "Focus" seems at once realistic yet detached as it creates a world of danger and hate and reminds us again of Miller's power as a dramatist.
David Lynch has never been a favorite filmmaker of mine (I thought that his "Eraserhead" was an overrated piece of pretentiousness), although I did find "Blue Velvet" arresting. His MULHOLLAND DRIVE, which aroused a good deal of interest at the Festival, is intriguing for much of the way as it satirizes life in Los Angeles and the characters who inhabit it, but then it veers into the metaphysical and collapses into a mishmash. While it works, the screenplay by Lynch sets up some amusing and bizarre situations involving a woman who is in trouble and survives a car wreck, although she doesn't remember who she is and takes refuge in an empty house, and a wide-eyed, enthusiastic aspiring actress who has permission to stay there by the owner. The two are thus thrown together and encounter one strange circumstance after another.
The better parts of the film are done with a wink, and there are some truly funny moments. The funniest line I heard at the Festival comes from this film. The two women are drawn to each other and when a bit of hanky panky begins in bed, one asks the woman with the memory loss whether she has ever done this before, and she replies, "I don't know." Lynch, as is his custom, gives the film a distinctive look through his use of settings, color and perspective.
WORLD TRAVELER, a film by Bart Freundlich, stars Billy Crudup as Cal, a husband and father who precipitously leaves home and his job one day to drive across country exploring life and, as we later learn, searching for a special gap in his background. With Crudup being an interesting actor, the film draws us in as he meets various characters along the way, especially Dulcie, a distraught woman played convincingly by Julianne Moore.
The strength of the acting carries the film, but the ending isn't particularly believable. After being absent for so long without giving his wife so much as a phone call, Cal returns from his odyssey convinced that the better life he seeks is really with his family. His wife just gives him a welcoming stare as if nothing had happened, when in real life the poor woman would have probably at least asked, "Where the hell have you been?"
There was so much going on at the Festival that one had to rush from one film to another just to get a sampling of the fare. France had a significant presence. Canada was well represented. There were films from countries around the world, and the United States had a key share of what was shown. Films opening in America soon and to be reviewed then include TRAINING DAY, a violent vehicle for Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris, a vicious, dishonest Los Angeles detective, with Ethan Hawke as Jake, a novice cop, who is being tested and used by Harris in a harrowing day of so-called training to see whether he can make Harris's unit; LIFE AS A HOUSE, under the direction of Irwin Winkler with an impressive cast that includes Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas and Mary Steenburgen, and THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS, with Glenn Close and Mary Kay Place among the stars.