2001 TIFF Festival Update #1: "Once More Into the Breach..."

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 6, 2001

For Shakespeare, winter is the time of discontent. For film-goers, it's the summer. And, while summer movies have not traditionally been bastions of intellectually challenging material, the months between May 2001 and August 2001 have been especially cruel. With its seemingly endless string of lame sequels and remakes, the Summer of 2001 has reached a new low for cinematic quality. However, as sure as cool weather is coming, so is the fall, and, hopefully with it, reasons to go back to the multiplexes. Standing between the hopeless season of would-be blockbusters and the hopeful season of would-be Oscar winners is the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival. This is one breach into which every motion picture lover will enjoy penetrating.

Selected to open this year's festival is Last Wedding, the third feature film from Canadian director Bruce Sweeney (all TIFF Opening Night films are Canadian in origin). The movie is said to be part-satire and part-drama as it investigates romance in the new century. Considering some of the recent Opening Night Films (The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia's Journey, and The Red Violin), Last Wedding has an impressive pedigree to live up to. Quality aside (and the picture could prove to be excellent), this movie may have more difficulty obtaining international distribution than other, recent Opening Night films because, in addition to boasting a relatively "unknown" director, the only recognizable name in the cast in Molly Parker.

The Closing Night film is Lantana, the second feature from Australian Raw Lawrence, who hasn't made a movie since 1985 (Bliss). Starring a high-profile cast headlined by Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, and Barbara Hershey, Lantana is a psychological thriller about the disappearance of a psychiatrist whose daughter was murdered two years ago and whose husband may have been having an affair with one of her patients. The film gains its menace and suspense more through images and moments when the camera lingers rather than through the helter-skelter pacing that defined most mainstream thrillers.

This year's selection of Galas is a more eclectic lot than usual, and includes seven World Premieres, four International Premieres, six North American Premieres, and one Canadian Premiere. Three of the most highly anticipated of these are Scott Hicks' Hearts in Atlantis, Peter Chelsom's Serendipity, and Antoine Fuqua's Training Day. Hearts in Atlantis, brought to the screen by the director of Shine, employs a William Goldman script based on a Stephen King novel and utilizes that acting talents of Anthony Hopkins. The movie blends nostalgia (a la Stand By Me) with mysticism. Training Day teams Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in a drama about law & order and idealism & pragmatism on the streets of Los Angeles, with Washington as a cop who pushes all the limits. Serendipity, from the director of Hear My Song and The Mighty, pairs John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale in an offbeat romantic comedy (with Cusack in the cast, "offbeat" is almost guaranteed). Advance word on this film is strong.

Other Galas include the noir thriller Novocaine, directed by David Atkins and starring Steve Martin as a dentist (my understanding, however, is that he is not reprising his Little Shop of Horrors role); Irwin Winkler's ensemble piece, Life as a House, starring Kevin Kline; Fred Schepisi's Last Orders, whose cast list reads like a "Who's Who" of British cinema (Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone); the Hughes Brothers' autopsy of the Jack the Ripper tale, From Hell, starring Johnny Depp; Mira Nair's latest, Monsoon Wedding; Benoit Jacquot's filming of Puccini's Tosca; and Michael Apted's World War II thriller, Engima.

As usual, there are many movies outside of the Gala arena worth taking a look at. Space prevents me from discussing more than a mere handful here (the festival shows a whopping 249 features from 54 countries totaling more than 27,000 minutes of film), but here is a rundown of a few of the more highly anticipated entries.

Master French director Eric Rohmer, who is now 81 years old, offers the North American Premiere of his latest, the historical epic L'Anglaise et le duc, a view of the French revolution from the perspective of a young Scottish aristocrat. As with all Rohmer films, the chief pleasure of this production should be its dialogue. In addition, Rohmer has used digital technology to re-create Paris of 200-plus years ago - no external shooting was done. Rohmer is not the only French legend to screen a new picture - Jean-Luc Godard, the critic-turned-filmmaker who, along with Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol, formed the French New Wave, has brought Eloge de l'amour. Described as possibly Godard's most accessible film in recent years, Eloge de l'amour follows a director as he plans and produces a film.

David Lynch delivers Mulholland Drive, the failed-TV-pilot-turned-motion picture that won him the co-director's award at Cannes, where he is revered. Word has it that the movie is gorgeous to look at but completely incomprehensible. So what else is new? On the other hand, Ken Loach's latest gritty outing, The Navigators deals with something we can all appreciate in these economic times - workforce downsizing. Back in Britain after a brief sojourn to the U.S. for Bread and Roses, Loach turns his attention to the privatization of British Rail.

From France comes Jacques Audiard's Sur me levres, a romantic thriller that is being called "eerie and unsettling". American director Bart Freundlich offers his follow-up to The Myth of Fingerprints, World Traveler, about what happens when a man suddenly drops everything and runs away from his life. The movie stars Billy Crudup and Freundlich's wife, Julianne Moore. Prozac Nation, directed by Insomnia's Erik Skjoldbjaerg, is based on the novel by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Getting this movie to the screen has been a labor of love for lead actress Christina Ricci, who has an Executive Producer credit. Ricci plays a college student who falls under the influence of '90s wonderdrug Prozac. (The movie reportedly features the actress' first topless scene.)

David Mamet, who is beloved in Toronto (his State and Main was one of last year's hottest tickets), brings his latest thriller, Heist. Todd Field's In the Bedroom, a low-key family drama starring Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek that won raves at Sundance, shows here before going into its upcoming theatrical release. Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects is being compared to the work of Todd Solondz in the way it interweaves the lives of various, often-unhappy people. Richard Linklater comes armed with a pair of motion pictures: Tape, a three-character drama that takes place all in one hotel room (starring Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, and Uma Thurman), and Waking Life, a surrealistic animated feature that examines all sorts of questions about life and existence, and features cameos by characters from previous Linklater movies.

John Dahl's Joy Ride, about a faceless trucker who menaces three college students on a cross-country road trip, is (understandably) being compared to Steven Spielberg's Duel. The movie stars Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, and Leelee Sobieski, and is set to open nationwide soon. The Business of Strangers, the feature debut of Patrick Stettner, features Julia Stiles and Stockard Channing in a drama about power shifts in the business world. Nonzee Nimibutr, Thailand's pre-eminent filmmaker, brings the controversial Jan Dara, based on the most erotic best-seller in Thai literature. The Grey Zone, from Tim Blake Nelson (whose O is currently playing in theaters), chronicles the only armed revolt that took place at Auschwitz.

Loin is the latest from Andre Techine, who depicts the tempestuous relationship between a young man and his Moroccan Jewish girlfriend while tackling larger issues of illegal smuggling and immigration. Dust, from Milcho Manchevski (After the Rain), is a Western starring Joseph Fiennes. Gabriel Aghion brings us a French re-make of the British cult TV series, "Absolutely Fabulous". Hirokazu Kore-Eda (Maborosi, After Life) presents the North American debut of his third film, Distance, about the relatives of four dead members of a religious cult. Henry Bean's The Believer takes a look at the disturbing subject of anti-Semitism in the United States (the twist being that the main character, a vehement anti-Semite, is a Jew). Nicole Holofcener (Walking & Talking) has cast Catherine Keener and Brenda Blethyn in Lovely and Amazing, the story of the lives and loves of a mother and her three daughters. And Jez Butterworth shows his Birthday Girl, a romantic comedy starring Nicole Kidman and Ben Chaplin that has was produced under the auspices of Miramax Films.

One of this year's special programs is called "Nordic Visions". Featuring a roster of 14 features from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, the program offers new productions from Bille August, Jan Troell, Colin Nutley, and 11 others. August's A Song for Martin tells of the romance between two aging characters, one of whom has Alzheimer's. Troell's As White as in Snow is a character study of an angry, self-destructive woman (played by Amanda Ooms). Nutley's Gossip stars Pernilla August (Anakin Skywalker's mother) and Helena Bergstrom in a backstage look at the nine Swedish actresses who are trying to outdo one another to nab the lead part in an American remake of Queen Christina.

Obviously, this brief overview barely scratches the surface of what's playing in Toronto (and, believe it or not, this is being considered a weak year - at least at the outset), but it at least offers an idea of the variety on tap. So, if the Toronto International Film Festival is the gateway to the fall movie season, it's time to pass through with all expedition and put the lousy summer behind.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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