TORONTO FESTIVAL REPORT 1998 Send This Review to a Friend
With more than 300 films shown, some of them premieres, the TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL demonstrated anew that it is one of the world's great film events. In addition to the films screened and the festival's increasing role as a marketplace, the influx of stars provided an aura of glamour.
Meryl Streep, who chooses her publicity venues carefully, charmed the press in connection with her performance in DANCING AT LUGHNASA(see review). When asked about the complaints by actresses who say they get a crack at scripts only after she rejects them, Streep replied, "They don't have to worry about that anymore," explaining that not many good scripts are written for older actresses, a category in which she places herself even though she still looks young and beautiful. Italian actor-writer-director Roberto Benigni was a popular guest as a result of the profound impact of his challenging and outstanding film LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (see review), a daring tragicomedy related to the Holocaust. The celebrated French actress Isabelle Huppert was on hand for her steamy new vehicle THE SCHOOL OF FLESH, about an older woman turned on by a young gigolo who moves in with her. The camera loves Huppert and she returns the favor with an engrossing character study that elevates the story. Writer-director Robert Towne came to plug his WITHOUT LIMITS, about the late track star Steve Prefontaine, along with Tom Cruise in his capacity as producer.
The festival afforded an opportunity to meet new directors from many lands, some of whom were assembled at a conference to discuss THE FACE OF EUROPEAN CINEMA TODAY. Included on the eclectic panel were Stephen Bradley (Ireland), Mario Gas (Spain), Bent Hamer (Norway), Julien Henriques (U.K.), Didier Le Pecheur (France), Mweze Ngangura (Belgium), Gaspar Noe (France), Stefan Ruzowitzky (Austria), Patrice Toye (Belgium), Tom Tykwer (Germany), and Thomas Vinterberg (Denmark). All spoke of the problems of getting their films noticed in a market dominated by American films, but agreed that their first concern had to be making the films they wanted to make.
With the many opening night parties, luncheons, and special events, the Toronto event provided plenty of fun for the international journalists and professionals who descended on the city. One highlight was the annual Sunday picnic at the Canadian Film Centre, where a few thousand festival-goers gathered on a beautiful, sunny afternoon welcomed by director Norman Jewison, the founder of the Centre. (Jewison, has been chosen as this year's honoree for a Lifetime Achievement Award at a Royal Ontario Museum gala.)
It was impossible, of course, to see anywhere near all of the entries, but I chose a selection and was impressed by a number of the choices, apart from those already mentioned. Saul Rubinek, seen frequently as an actor, directed the unusual dark comedy JERRY AND TOM, which has been bought by Miramax . Deftly scripted by Rick Cleveland, it's a satirical look at the lives of hit men, and in addition to being directed with skill and a sharp eye for humorous detail, it features mischievously entertaining performances by Joe Mantegna, Sam Rockwell, and Charles Durning.
Also strong in the comedy department is THE IMPOSTERS, written, directed and co- produced by Stanley Tucci ("Big Night'). On screen Tucci and co-star Oliver Platt team as unemployed, struggling 1930s actors who bumble through a series of misadventures. In one hilarious scene after another they hark back to the kind of inventive humor that characterized the silent era, with the centerpiece aboard a luxury liner. A fine-tuned cast includes Steve Buscemi, Billy Connolly, Elizabeth Bracco, Hope Davis, Dana Ivey, Alfred Molina, Campbell Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Lili Taylor, and Tony Shalhoub. There's even an uncredited appearance by Woody Allen.
CENTRAL STATION (see review) is a gem not to be missed. Set in Rio de Janeiro, it tells the story of a woman who writes letters for illiterates and the change that takes place in her life when she meets a boy who longs to find the father he has never known. This is a powerful film in the humanist tradition.
ELIZABETH (see review) is an historically intelligent drama that stands the old Hollywood costume drama form on its head. The 16th century story of England's Queen Elizabeth I, eventually to become known as "The Virgin Queen," is filled with secret sex, back-stabbing political intrigue and vicious plots emphasizing the dark side of religious power struggles. Cate Blanchett gives a colorful, convincing and fresh performance as the queen, who learns the harsh truths about reigning. I asked director Shekhar Kapur of India why he wanted to do a film about British history. "It's our history too," he said.
DOWN IN THE DELTA has special interest because it is directed by the renowned author and poet Maya Angelou. She has come through with a poignant film about family struggle and the salvation of a young black mother who first sinks into the trap of alcohol and crack and then finds a new beginning with an uncle in Mississippi. Although there is no fancy cinematic footwork, the film achieves power through its straightforward storytelling, heartfelt handling of its subject, and fine performances by Loretta Divine, Mary Alice, Al Freeman, Jr, Esther Rolle, and Wesley Snipes.
GOD SAID 'HA!'is really little more than a filmed account of a stage performance. No matter. Julia Sweeney is so likable and witty recounting the troubles she faces (Sweeney wrote, performed and directed) that the film is both very funny and at times moving. Sweeney comes across as a person you'd really like to get to know. In fact, I felt as if did know her by the time the film was over.
The films mentioned are only a sampling of the superior wares the Toronto Film Festival offered in many categories, including the Galas, Special Presentations, Perspective Canada, Contemporary World Cinema, Masters, Real to Reel, and other program designations. Naturally, there were many less auspicious movies, and there was plenty of divided opinion, particularly over Todd Solondz's controversial "Happiness," a candid probe of suburban family secrets. Variety makes for an interesting movie-going binge, and when it comes to seeing the latest films, or famous classics for that matter, Toronto audiences love to binge.
When I tell people that LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (LA VITA E BELLA, a hit at the Toronto Film Festival, is a comedy dealing with the Holocaust, they are skeptical. Can anyone pull off such an idea? Roberto Benigni, Italy's contemporary gift to cinema, has done it. Those who have seen Benigni's others works, such as "The Monster," know that he takes the legacy of Chaplin and Keaton and blends their brand of humor with his own. He's funny, inventive and energetic.
Here he plays Guido, a Jewish man who is consumed with high spirits and optimism. The word "no" isn't in his lexicon. He is as innocent as he is manic and he dreams of owning a bookstore. When he meets Dora, an attractive young teacher who is engaged, he showers attention on her, calls her "Princess" and woos her indefatigably. Cut to seven years later when they are married with a son. As the Nazis and Fascists tighten the campaign against Jews, Guido and his son are sent to a concentration camp. Dora, although she is not Jewish, nevertheless insists on going along.
The war is nearing an end and Guido's main mission in the camp is to keep their son alive. He imbues the boy with his unremitting optimism and convinces him it is all a game and that the boy will "win" if he just plays according to his father's instructions. Guido invents all sorts of diversions and deceits to evade his persecutors.
I have long thought that the enormity of the Holocaust cannot be dealt with adequately by realistic recounting. It takes another sort of creativity to convey the evil and the horror, such as Lina Wertmuller accomplished in "Seven Beauties." Benigni's film is more fairy tale than realism. He takes a situation to an absurd level, making us laugh at his audacious antics and clever twists, but also succeeds in eventually turning the corner to wrench us emotionally. This is a gigantic feat. "Life Is Beautiful," which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is immensely creative. Plaudits go not only to Benigni but to his wife, actress Nicoletta Braschi, who has often collaborated with him and who plays Dora, and to the wonderfully expressive youngster Giorgio Cantarini, who plays the boy. A Miramax Release.
DANCING AT LUGHNASA, set in Ireland, won plaudits as a play by Brian Friel when it was mounted on Broadway. The film version, showcased at the Toronto Festival, has a screenplay by Frank McGuinness and is directed by Pat O'Connor, who has such previous credits as "Cal," "Moonstruck" and "Circle of Friends." The film succeeds as a slice-of-life look at the five unmarried Mundy sisters who in 1936 live on a farm near the small Donegal town of Ballybeg. The very special acting and the overall ambience are what count.
If ever there were a work tailor made for outstanding ensemble performances by actresses, this is it. Meryl Streep is at her very best--and that is saying something--as Kate, the dominant sister, a school teacher with her own frustrations who rules the household. This time Streep has mastered an Irish accent. Sophie Thompson does plenty of scene-stealing as the simple minded and naïve Rose, who seeks romance and is smitten by a man already married. Catherine McCormack excels as Christina, who has an illegitimate young son (sensitively played by Darrell Johnston) through whose reflective off-screen narration as a grownup the story is recounted. Kathy Burke and Brid Brennan are perfect as the other sisters, and Michael Gambon adds yet another fine characterization to his repertoire as their brother, a priest returned from 25 years in Africa and now a stranger to his surroundings. Rhys Ifans is handsome and convincing as a young idealist who fathered Christina's child but is determined to go to Spain to fight against Franco instead of settling down with her.
The title comes from a festival, which is the climactic, symbolic setting for Rose's thwarted aspirations. I heard complaints by some in Toronto that the film "doesn't go anywhere." But that's missing the point. "Dancing at Lughnasa" is a treasure trove of fabulous acting that captures the aspirations and frustrations of women confined by their environment and reflects the indomitable human spirit. The original play is enhanced by the beautiful Irish countryside that provides a meaningful setting. Superb writing, memorable acting, impressive cinematography and fine-tuned direction make for unusually rewarding movie-going. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Cate Blanchett, best known as Lucinda opposite Ralph Fiennes in "Oscar and Lucinda," conquers new territory with a radiant, forceful performance as England's 16th century Queen Elizabeth I in ELIZABETH, another impressive film that turned up at the Toronto Film Festival. She shows us the various stages of the queen's life, from an inexperienced young innocent, whose pending ascendancy to the throne is fraught with danger, to a mature ruler who decides that in order to survive she must forget about love and become the steely "Virgin Queen."
There's a decidedly feminist twist to the portrait, which gives the film a freshness that sets it apart from typical historical costume dramas. True, there are a few overwrought bits of dialogue reminiscent of old Hollywood and nothing is stinted in the lavish settings and costumes. But for the most part this serious drama is far removed from Hollywood's hokey 1939 "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," which teamed Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. It is more somber in tone, replete with sinister goings-on, vicious plotting, ruthless murders and a plethora of machinations involving Protestants and Catholics in the maneuverings for power. And what furtive sex! A Ken Starr would have been in his glory.
The large supporting cast includes Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccelston, Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's brother), Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant, and John Gielgud. Director Shekhar Kapur of India tackled his subject matter with verve and irreverence while mindful of history. I'll leave the extent of its historical accuracy to the scholars specializing in the period. Suffice it to say that as a film "Elizabeth" works most entertainingly. I was caught up in the narrative, impressed by the performances and spent a thoroughly enjoyable time. A Gramercy Pictures release.
CENTRAL STATION (CENTRAL DO BRASIL), which was shown at the Toronto festival and won the best film Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival, deserves even more accolades. It's a drama in the great humanist tradition of films that open a window on every day struggles and etch characters forever in our minds. It was co-produced by Arthur Cohn, whose earlier films garnered five Oscars, awarded for "The Sky Above, the Mud below," "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," "Black and White in Color," "Dangerous Moves" and "American Dream."
Directed by Walter Salles, "Central Station" quickly involves us with the cynical Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), who earns money at the central Rio de Janeiro railroad station writing letters for illiterates paying her a dollar a letter. She shows no conscience about neglecting to mail some of them. Her life changes dramatically when she is approached by a woman with a nine-year-old son who has never seen his father and nurtures the hope of finding him. Vinicius de Oliveira can break your heart as the boy and Marilia Pera spices the drama as Dora's outspoken neighbor.
The growing relationship between Dora and the boy provides the film's emotional pull and in following their adventures we are shown the conditions and difficulties with which some people exist. In some ways the film is reminiscent of such Italian neo- realistic classics as "The Bicycle Thief " and "Umberto D." Here's a gem not to be missed. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
The cancer in ONE TRUE THING is terminal but the film seems interminable. One plus in the adaptation of Anna Quindlen's novel is the performance by Renee Zellweger as a journalist whose mother is struck by fatal illness. Zellweger, increasingly impressive in a succession of roles, brings a truthful quality to the role of Ellen as she struggles to care for her mother and understand her father, a professor preoccupied with his work and extra-curricular flings.
Streep's part as the suburban matron, an excessively cheerful do-gooder and apple-pie mother hen, isn't a great one. But she nails down the character well and builds to a powerful scene in which she vents her anger and tells her daughter a thing or two. William Hurt works hard to make the father both an egocentric ogre and husband who deep-down loves his wife.
The trouble is that "One True Thing," as screen-written by Karen Croner and directed by Carl Franklin, rarely rises above the Hollywood tear-jerker level. Save for Ellen, the characters are not very interesting and aside from a touch here and there, the story gets boring. That said, some viewers may reach for their handkerchiefs at the end. Others may hasten toward the exit. A Universal Pictures release.