TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2002 (ARTICLE I) Send This Review to a Friend
Choices, Choices. With some 350 films in the 27th Toronto International Film Festival, there were extraordinary viewing opportunities, which made for frustrating decisions on which films do see, especially when promising ones were scheduled opposite each other. But why complain? The pressure led me to select wisely, and the happy result was that most of what I saw turned out to be very worthwhile. No question about it, the Toronto event has grown into one of the world's greatest movie binges. Accordingly, my coverage will be in installments.
FRIDA, for example, one of my favorites, is a stunning film on many counts. The beautiful Salma Hayek gives a turbulent, moving performance as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, with Alfred Molina also outstanding as the exuberant Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, with whom Kahlo shared so much of her life despite his penchant for infidelity. The screenplay by Clancy Sigel, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, based on Hayden Herrera's book, sparkles with drama and history, including the political climate and events with which Frida and Rivera were involved.
"Frida" is also gorgeous to look at. It is ripe with the colors one associates with Mexico, and director Julie Taymor has imbued the film with insight and creativity. Taymor brings to the screen inventiveness similar to what she accomplished on stage with "The Lion King," her launching pad to renown. She uses animation and fantasy to express Frida's thoughts and feelings, and does so in just the right proportions so that she lifts the visual and intellectual quality of the film without overstepping. Elliot Goldenthal's score adds another dimension. "Frida" is a huge, pulsating and entertaining achievement.
Another especially moving film is ANTWONE FISHER, a notable coup for Denzel Washington, who both directs and acts. Written by the real Antwone Fisher about his own life, the film stars the impressive Derek Luke as a troubled U.S. Navy man who has an explosive personality that gets him into jams repeatedly as a result of unresolved emotional problems stemming from childhood. Washington plays the Navy psychiatrist to whom he is sent for help, and the good doctor patiently works to overcome Fisher's resistance and open doors to a turnaround.
Washington as director avoids pretentious frills in telling the autobiographical story, relying instead on low-key, straightforward drama that is packed with compelling
situations and confrontations. The film also benefits from a lovely performance by Joy Bryant as Cheryl, the woman who comes into Fisher's life and helps him with her friendship, warmth and understanding. Watching "Antwone Fisher" is a rewarding experience and there could conceivably by some major awards.
AUTO FOCUS, a film by Paul Schrader, is an effectively acerbic drama based on the real-life character of television star Bob Crane, who met with a grim end. Greg Kinnear is dynamic as he depicts Crane leading a life of debauchery and linking up with John Carpenter, played by Willem Dafoe as a man who lives vicariously through Crane yet deeply resents him. Carpenter gets him women and feeds his desire to photograph as well as bed them.
Beginning in 1960s Los Angeles, "Auto Focus," based on a book by Robert Graysmith and scripted by Michael Gerbosi, follows Crane's rise to fame though the television hit comedy "Hogan's Heroes" and his subsequent decline. Ron Liebman delivers a strong performance as Crane's agent, who tries to tone down his behavior, and there are also good performances by Rita Wilson and Maria Bello as women in the actor's life. Following Crane's brash adventures and obliviousness to the toll they are taking is entertaining, and yet the film is a shocker for the way things turn out, even if you know the real story in advance. Schrader is in top form.
There was considerable, well-justified buzz in Toronto for Todd Haynes's FAR FROM HEAVEN, which harks back to the sort of 1950s romantic melodramas embodied in Douglas Sirk's 's 1955 "All That Heaven Allows." Haynes has perfectly captured the aura and nuances of the genre, both visually and emotionally. Both writing and directing, Haynes constructs a story with Julianne Moore as Cathy, a Connecticut housewife who doesn't realize that her husband Frank, with Dennis Quaid outstanding in that role, is secretly gay and wracked with pain and guilt in trying to lead a married life despite his inner needs and desires.
Dennis Haysbert gives a particularly sensitive performance playing the African-American gardener as sparks of understanding develop between him and Cathy, which leads to vicious gossip in the racial atmosphere of the period. Moore, who won the best actress award at the Venice Festival for her work in the film, brings a naive quality to the part, and Haynes resurrects the atmosphere from another time, yet raises issues that still resonate for today. The film shows signs of being one of the most talked about this year.
From Stephen Frears comes a dazzling, dark tale with black comedy elements. His DIRTY PRETTY THINGS is about illegal immigrants in London who are scrounging to make a living and remain a step ahead of the authorities eager to deport them. Chiwetel Ejiofer is sympathetic as Okwe, who doubles as a cab driver and a receptionist in a small hotel. Audrey Tautou, the star of "Amélie," excels in an unusual performance as Senay, who is from Turkey and shares a flat with Okwe. She has a job as a maid in the hotel where he works.
It turns out that there are strange doings in the hotel. Secret operations are being performed on immigrants who sell their kidneys for much-needed cash, and the illicit medical setup is being run by a greedy hotel employee. The film is charged with desperation, but there is gallows humor in the way in which Okwe, who had medical training back home, is able to resolve the key crisis. Good performances, the film's unusual subject, the atmosphere and the ability of Frears to get us to root for sympathetic characters makes "Dirty Pretty Things" a winner.
Jim Sheridan, who has given us such important films as "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father," scores yet again with IN AMERICA (WORKING TITLE), both gritty and charming in following the fortunes of an Irish immigrant family struggling in New York's Harlem. The film combines the magic of childhood with the life and death struggles of adults and wins us over as this besieged little family battles for survival.
Sara (Samantha Morton) and Johnny (Paddy Considine) still grieve over the loss of a child and are now trying to raise their young daughters. They live in a run-down apartment and are trying to pay their way from day to day. Mateo, a strange black artist, lives in the building and is given to rages. He's beautifully played by Djimon Hounsou, who was so effective as Cinque, the rebel slave leader in "Amistad." Sisters Sarah Bolger and Emma Bolger are very likable as the youngsters. Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay with his daughter Naomi, has said his film contains autobiographical elements. The result is a tender, glowing drama.
Of course, there were many enjoyable films of a lighter nature, such as JET LAG, Danièl Thompson's frothy romantic French bauble in which a man and a woman meet at an airport and, after basic antagonisms that begin during flight delays, warm to a relationship. The pleasant surprise is the light comedy performance by Juliette Binoche as the woman. Jean Reno is also amusing in the male lead. Thompson, who wrote the screenplay with her son Christopher Thompson, keeps the pace smart and swift and the dialogue bright and witty. With such excellent stars, she succeeds admirably. Also, a cell phone virtually becomes a major character in this up-to-date romp. But the main revelation is seeing what Binoche can do with comedy. As usual, she looks gorgeous.
Another treat from France is 8 WOMEN, which teams a bevy of actresses in a cleverly entertaining spoof on whodunits (see Film section or Search for full review). But the twist is that the stars get a chance to burst into song. The result is great fun. The eight ladies include Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier, Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart and Firmine Richard. The action takes place in an old house of the kind often associated with mysteries, and in the course of the tale there are assorted revelations about family secrets. "8 Women" is the work of François Ozon.
Brian De Palma brought his new thriller FEMME FATALE to Toronto, and it was one of the big draws. De Palma toys with the audience as he mixes reality and events unfolding in the mind of his heroine, Laure, played by the exquisite Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. The story mixes a clever jewel theft with the aftermath involving thugs seeking revenge for the duplicity that screwed them. Antonio Banderas is striking in his role as an ex-paparazzo who becomes involved.
The film is a beauty to look at and De Palma has some fancy, creative scenes. In one split-screen gambit he moves a portion of the scene while the other part is stationary, gradually bringing the moving part toward the other. I don't recall having seen that tried before and the effect is startling. As for the plot, it takes some following on the part of the audience, which must attempt to figure out what's real and what's not. Whether the story itself is worth all of this may be questionable, but De Palma certainly knows how to grab our attention with his expertise and provocative ways.
Speaking of provocation, Michael Moore was at it again with BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, his devastating exploration and indictment of America's fascination with guns and the efforts of the gun lobby. Moore doesn't make documentaries as such. He films personal essays around situations that he exposes and sometimes manipulates. As usual, he manages to inject humor in making his points.
But there is sadness as he probes the toll that guns take. He is also something of a guerilla filmmaker, as when he gets an interview with Charlton Heston and poses lacerating questions linking Heston's support for guns to a little girl who was shot. It is a cheap ploy, although Heston asked for it when he spoke at a meeting apparently timed to take the sting out of local outrage about weapons. All's fair in Moore's use of film as an expose essay. He makes no pretense at being a documentary filmmaker in the customary sense of the word.
(MORE TO COME)