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The 28th Toronto International Film Festival

     Some of the best movies at the 28th Toronto International Film Festival, Sept.4-13, were offered also by their distributors to the Boston Film Fest: Shattered Glass, Japanese Story, The Fog of War, and The Triplets of Belleville, all opening here soon. But when Boston shuts down--a small-time, unfestive fest with a pittance of guests and at the mercy of what distributors make available--Toronto leaps awake. There are hundreds of fascinating films, long and short, picked by curators who have traversed the world finding them. There are parties all over the city, lines around the block for sold-out screenings, morning until midnight. And there are literally hundreds of guests--actors,directors, producers-in town supporting their films.

     "The poor Hub citizenry," I say sorrowfully every year, "brainwashed to believe that the Boston Film Festival has legitimacy. If only they could experience Toronto!"

     Let's settle down to business. Did Beantown get a peek at the revamped The Brown Bunny? Torontonians came out in droves to see Vincent Gallo's notorious movie, the one at Cannes last May practically laughed off the screen. I was among the naysayers, jeering at the vanity scenes of Gallo directing himself: Gallo going into a motel room and, for many screen minutes, washing his face (or was he shaving?); Gallo stopping at a gas station, and, for many screen minutes, gassing his auto, from empty to full. And then there was the infamous blow job, Chloe Sevigny going down on Gallo, while he unhappily muttered and moaned.

     In Toronto, I talked with students of the film who had perused both Brown Bunny versions. Gallo seems to have heeded some of the criticisms, trimming away at the most laughably self-indulgent sequences. The gas pumping, for instance, is practically gone. The melancholy blow job remains.
Many Torontonians championed the new The Brown Bunny.

     An elated Gallo reported in the press that he witnessed only four walkouts.

     The movie is surely better now, a half hour shorter. Also, those seeing it in Toronto were determined to be hip and cool and embrace it, a backlash to the unhip at Cannes. "Well, I was part of the backlash blacklash," Canadian actor-filmmaker, Don McKellar, told me. "I went to the movie expecting Canadians in backlash to love it, and I would resist. But I really liked it. The Brown Bunny is a really good film."

     So what replaced The Brown Bunny at Toronto 2003 as The Movie You Love to Loathe? Hands down, it was the messy, execrable Wonderland, a creepy, crawly, unneeded telling of the 1981 LA murders of a roomful of swarthy drug types, which was set up by ex-porn star, John "Wadd" Holmes. The Rashomon-like question dominating the James Cox-directed movie was whether or not Holmes himself participated in the killings. Depends whose flashback version you found credible. But, as bored journalists kept muttering at the screening, "Who the hell cares?" A bearded Val Kilmer does what he can playing the seedy Holmes. The most arresting performance is by Kate Bosworth, far afield from Blue Crush, as Dawn Schiller, Holmes's heroin-shooting, sometimes-hooker, adoring 19-year-old girlfriend.

Dawn Schiller responds...
"I know this comes a bit late, but I just found this review and would like to let you know that I never shot heroin. In the movie or in life. Sorry, but your information is incorrect. And the being sold to Eddie Nash was John forcing me. Just to let you know how the real person (me) feels about an insensitive review... the answer is just horrible that there seems to be no compassion. I was a young girl that got pulled into an older, more experienced man's world and was very lucky to get out. The accuracy of your review matters. I am a real person as are others who may be in a bad situation. Thanks." - Dawn S. Schiller

     I sat in on a press round table for Wonderland, at which Bosworth was remarkably poised amidst zealous junketeers. Developing her role, she'd become bosom friends with the real Dawn Schiller, now in her 40s, who has lived long past Holmes dying of AIDs complications. Bosworth:"I'd thought that Dawn was addicted to drugs. I realized she'd been addicted to John, and he was addicted to drugs. I'm 20. When I shot the film, I was 19. It was the weirdest thing to play this character, who was also 19. I'd say, 'I'd never do this stuff! My God!' After 21 days of that intensity, I said, 'Next project, I'm doing a romantic comedy!'"

     Someone had to ask. I beat the junketeers in inquiring, "Did you talk to Dawn about living with Holmes's legendary-sized member?"

     "It's one of the first things you think of," Bosworth admitted. "Was it really (that big)?...I felt really weird asking. Dawn told me... I don't know how to say it...that she couldn't get it..." Boswell faltered, visibly flushed.

     My paparazzi question!

     However, I was all politeness interviewing Katie Holmes, star of the likable, humanist Pieces of April. I'd done my homework, reading on-line talks with the ex-TV star of Dawson's Creek, about her caring, functional upbringing in Toledo, Ohio. That's the person I met with in Toronto: a sincere, ingenuous midwesterner, who seems, at 24, pretty modest for all her fame. Refreshing!

     In Pieces of April, Holmes plays a punkish young woman living in NYC who tries to reconcile with mom, who is dying of cancer, by cooking a family Thanksgiving dinner in her lowly tenement flat. "We used an actual apartment on the Lower East Side, an 8th floor walkup," Holmes said. "I shot my part for ten days in a row. 17 hour days. It was shoot, go home, crash, shoot, go home, crash. There was zero setup time, no trailers, no space for ourselves. For this movie: they were taking away the perks, the money. Let's see how I'd like it? I did. We were working for a greater cause. We loved the script, loved the director, Peter Hedges."

     The Thanksgiving feast brings together black and Chinese families with her suburban wbite one. Holmes's April has an African-American boyfriend (Derek Luke). "What I got from this movie is the beauty of human kindness, how lovely when all these people of all nationalities come together. With April and her boyfriend, Derek and I tried to create real love and care. Their interracial relationship is so real. Coming from a suburban family, April has really evolved."

     Katie Holmes is that peach-pie nice. April's crazy, wobbly, erratic family? "It makes me cherish my family even more. At the end of a day, I want to give my mom a hug and thank her for nice memories."

Other films of note at Toronto:
Noi Albinoi-Alienated youth suffer everywhere on earth, as evidenced by this tale of out-of-sync Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) stumbling about a snowbound, claustrophobic village on an Icelandic fjord. He struggles to get along with his moody, alcoholic father, fights with the narrow-thinking authorities at his high school, pines for the pretty girl who works at the one-pump gas station. Filmmaker Dagur Kirir walks a fine line between Kaurismaki deadpan minimalism and Truffaut adolescent yearning.

     Loving Glances- Ex-Boston University filmmaking professor, Srdjan Karanovic (Petra's Wreath, The Fragrance of Wild Flowers) was among the important Yugoslav directors in the 1970s and 1980s, before teaching in America. Back home in Belrade, he became a vociferous opponent of the Milosevic regime. With his first feature in fifteen years, Karanovic has used the opportunity to show his vehement hatred of nationalist tendencies, but through a gentle, pensive, humanist comedy. It's 1996 in Belgrade, and a Croation-born Serbian is among the refugees. He's searching for his lost girl, finds a new one via a computerized dating service. But his every step toward happiness is watched over by family ghosts-are these on-screen apparitions real or imagined?-who want him involved with someone ethnically pure.

     Osama-The first feature production in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Siddiq Barak's story takes place when the Taliban are still in power. It's the tragic tale of a teenage girl who, disguised as a boy, is drafted into the Taliban army. Her identity discovered, she is married off in punishment to an aging mulah, who already has a household of veiled wives. This movie was given financial help by the Iranian Ministy of Culture. Despite its extreme relevancy, it feels too derivative of an Iranian-made polemic by Samira or Mohsen Makhhmalbaf.

     Tom Dowd & the Language of Music-Mark Moormann's film was
the most joyous at Toronto, a love-in homage to a genius sound engineer, Tom Dowd, who for decades, orchestrated the recordings of the giants of American music, including Ray Charles, Les Paul, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynard, Ornette Coleman, Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers. In the rotten music-business world, Dowd was the nice guy's nice guy. There's great music played here, and testimony after testimony-from Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Greg Allman, etc.-to Dowd's musical genius and to his worth as a human being.

     End of the Century: the Story of the Ramones- Co-directed by Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, this is a mesmerizing, troubling documentary about the rise and stumble of the three-chord legendary punkers from Forest Hills, New York. They were all called Ramones, but how could any three people be more unalike than the off-stage unrelated Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee? The key interviews here are with the fascistic, control-freak Johnny and the drugged-up, tattoo-covered Dee Dee. Just as he agreed to talk, the hippyish Joey went into a hospital for the last time. Soon after being interviewed,
Dee Dee Od'd. This is the best record you'll ever get of the real-person Ramones.

     Festival failures? The Girl With a Pearl Earring, a stodgy, stillborn adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's much overrated novel about the mysterious girl in the Vermeer painting. Scarlett Johannson is OK as the gal, but Colin Firth seems damned uncomfortable claiming to be the master Dutch painter.

     The Human Stain. Philip Roth's novel about a light-skinned black man hiding out as a Jewish professor strains credibility on the page. It's worse when the Afro-American in the movie proves to be Britain's Anthony Hopkins. Nicole Kidman is beautiful and sexy, but she's hardly the part of a little-educated worker and cow milker.

     In the Cut. Why did Jane Campion bother to adapt Susanna Moore's dank, ugly literary potboiler? Nobody liked this movie, and who can believe Hollywood's Meg Ryan as a New York intellectual? However, she does, as she did with Sally, fake well a couple of orgasms.

(Boston Phoenix - September 2003)


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