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The 23rd Toronto International Film Festival

     My friend telephoned her friend in the guest office of last month's 23rd Toronto International Film Festival to find out where I was staying. "Some guy from Boston?" the friend of a friend snorted. "Don't you want to know Tom Cruise's hotel room instead?"

     Yes, Cruise was there in the handsome flesh. Questions to him dominated a press conference for Without Limits, about runner Steve Prefontaine, for which he served as co-producer. "Didn't you miss the money you normally make acting?" Cruise: It might be hard for you to believe, but I don't do things for money." Did the gathered journalists appear skeptical? "It might be hard for you to believe," Cruise repeated, this time nervously.

     His co-producer, Paula Wagner, defended him: "Tom is very organic, very committed to the process. In a way, he's The Muse of the film." The Muse got more anxious probed about Eyes Wide Shut, his closed-set Stanley Kubrick movie. "It was an extraordinary experience for me," he answered evasively, looking about for help. The moderator of the panel saved him: "We've been asked to talk only about Without Limits."

     I attempted the same trick, trying to derail a Clay Pigeons press conference by getting actor Vince Vaughn to speak instead about why Gus Van Sant would want to remake Psycho. "Where plays and music are concerned, they're remade all the time," he answered, sourly. "But I'd rather not talk about that here...I'd like to talk about Clay Pigeons."

     It was hard to warm to Vaughn, who seemed smug, smart-ass, and unduly conceited, an almost obscene casting as beloved Norman Bates in the rehabbed Psycho. (But then who gets the Good Will Hunting-and-beyond Van Sant?)

     I've gotten this far without repeating my praise every year about the Toronto Fest: it's the most thrilling, aesthetically exciting film festival in the whole world. It's better than Cannes; and poor Bostonians never will know what it's like to have a whole city lit up by days and nights of movies, movies, movies, and countless parties, and amazing directors, and fabulous stars everywhere.

     So what do I especially recommend from Toronto?

     Besieged. The touching new Bernardo Bertolucci film about an eccentric English bachelor (David Thewlis) living in Rome and his Casablanca-like love for his African servant (Thandie Newton), who is married to a dissident imprisoned back home. A Fine Line release.

     Hilary and Jackie. A high-class biographical melodrama about the stormy friendship of celloist Jacqueline du Pre (Emily Watson) and her flautist sister, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths). An October Films release.

     Brakhage. A magnificent documentary homage to experimental film master, Stan Brakhage, which manages to make sense of the Colorado-based filmmaker's elusive methodology. No distributor.

     A Place Called Chiapas. A vivid, courageous,on-the-spot visit with the Mexican guerillas, the Zapatistas, and also with their death squad enemies. Pugnacious leftist Vancouver filmmaker Nettie Wild is the new Barbara Kopple. No distributor.

     I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. A zany, affectionate version of Ed Wood's last screenplay, a silent movie (Wood's conception) about the final 24 hours of a homicidal escapee from a mental institution. Billy Zane comes on like Buster Keaton in the lead. Among the delirious cast: Eartha Kitt, Tippi Hedren. No distributor.

     Luminous Motion. A formally expert, unusually gripping indie road film from ex-Newtonian Bette Gordon about the symbiotic relationship of a precocious ten-year-old boy and his hard-drinking, promiscuous mom (Deborah Unger). There's nothing sentimental in this adaptation of a Scott Bradfield novel. The mother is in a fuzz; the boy goes after his mother's lovers with poison. No distributor.

     Three very important French films: Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone, Benoit Jacquot's The School of Flesh, Olivier Assayas' Late August, Early September.

     (Of the above, only the hapless Clay Pigeons was selected for the Boston Film Festival.)

     I enjoyed the world premiere of Long Time Since, by my writer/director pal Jay Anania, an ex-WGBH editor residing in New York. For this tale of recovered memory by a reclusive botanic illustrator (Paulina Porizkova), some of the dialogue is soupy but Anania's sounds and images possess a startling Godardian purity.

     For the Q&A, the lovely Porizkova stepped out of the audience, where she sat with her husband, ex-Car Rick Ocasek. Then the sharp Toronto audience asked challenging questions about the Artemis/Diana mythological basis for the film. Would that the manic entertainment reporters at Toronto be one quarter that intelligent. I swear, I heard Clay Pigeons' Joaquin Phoenix asked this: "Was it a unique experience for you to do something you'd never done before?"

     Also: a journalist colleague was interviewing Ben Stiller when a cub stringer from the New York Post burst into the room, begging to ask just one question.

     Cub:"Ben, how does it feel to be at the peak of your career?"

     Stiller: "It feels great."

     Cub: "Thanks! It'll be in the Tuesday edition!"

     Finally, I overheard a journalist bragging that he'd found the worst dialogue of the whole Toronto Fest. From the woeful American gangster movie, Hell's Kitchen: "DID YOU FUCK MY MOTHER???"

(Boston Phoenix - September 1998)


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