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The 29th Toronto International Film Festival

     The George W. campaign has proven impervious to the Michael Moore ridicule of Farenheit 9/ll. Can a Bush second term be stopped a different way, by a stalwart, surprisingly inspiring homage to the glories of John Kerry? Anyone whose vision was blighted by those Swift Boat ads should take a long look at George Butler’s Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, which premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in Boston on October 1.

     Butler is a 30-year friend of our Massachusetts Junior Senator, and their closeness opens him up to a Kerry we’d all wish now to see: a clear-thinking, eloquently-speaking idealist who takes seriously, and to heart, the valiant call of John F. Kennedy to "ask what you can do for your country." Or at least Kerry did during the era of this movie, his Vietnam years, in battle and, after, back home as a brilliant spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. "I’m not going to see another tired Kerry campaign film," a critic friend, a Democrat, said at Toronto. Wrong! Going Upriver is informative (and uplifting!)for even know-all partisans of Kerry, and it could be a conversion experience for those who doubt his heroism in Vietnam, his leadership and/or patriotism. Among the true believers of Going Upriver is Jeff Dowd, the Abby Hoffman-like PR trouble-shooter for American indies, whom the Cohens used as the model for Jeff Bridges’ "The Dude" in The Big Lebowski. Before Toronto, Dowd had been taking the movie around to test groups of potential voters. "At the end of screenings, we asked those who called themselves ‘undecided’ how they’d vote," the Dude told me. "90% of them were now voting for Kerry."

     The best film I saw at Toronto? Alexander Payne’s Sideways, his masterly comedy follow-up to Election and About Schmidt and the best film by far of 2004. Poor Bostonians, waiting for an October 20 opening! It’s a buddy-buddy road movie, in which two late-thirtyish friends tool the California highways for a few days of celebrating before one of them gets married. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a bitterly divorced public school teacher, who gets his pleasures from obsessing about, and partaking of, the finest California wines. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is an affable, maddeningly irresponsible, fading TV actor, who utilizes his last unmarried week to screw around with any woman he sees. A very odd couple: Miles, neurotic and pessimistic, unable to let go of his ex-wife, deeply afraid of new love relations, fearful that the novel he wrote will not be published; Jack, a bubble-head philistine, without the slightest conscience about cheating on his future wife. And so they ride around, and they do meet women, and the romances that ensue are both screwball hilarious and truly deeply touching, so funny, so awkward, so bittersweet.

     I was hardly alone among the swept-away at Toronto. Sideways, beautifully (and modestly) directed by Payne, gorgeously written by Payne and his perennial co-scenarist Jim Taylor, made me coo with pleasure, a jubilant answer to this critic’s ever-more-faint prayer for greatness from today’s Hollywood cinema. Giamatti and Church together, so wonderfully mismatched, recall Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis bouncing about in Some Like It Hot; and Sideways is the equivalent of a grand Billy Wilder romantic comedy.

     2004 was a year of explicit arthouse sex at Toronto, with X-films from A-list directors, including England’s Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs), France’s Catherine Breillat (Anatomy of Hell), and Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson (A Hole in My Heart). This reviewer stayed native, sexual slumming with our own eros-obsessed filmmaker, James Toback (The Pick-Up Artist, Two Girls and a Guy, etc.). I even hitched a limousine ride with Toback, whom I’d hung with in Cambridge when he made Harvard Man. He and I were off for a Toronto screening of When Will I Be Loved, starring Neve Campbell as (seminal Toback) a filthy-rich, bosom-baring, bisexual minx.

     As we rode, Toback, famously uncensored in his comments, praised Campbell’s performance, starting with her opening nude shower scene, masturbating with her bare rump to the audience: "Oh, the muscular contractions of the calves, the thighs, the ass, the back, so very beautiful that this incredible graceful actress has such deft control!" An Oscar maybe? "There is no way in 2004 that any young actress can come close to Neve’s performance," Toback said. What about, for him, a Best Picture nomination? "I live in the real world, it will not happen. The odds are against bold, provocative films. But it would be nice to be recognized."

     I recognize When Will I Be Loved as an entertaining time at the cinema, with a delicious cameo by the filmmaker’s off-screen pal, Mike Tyson, and a droll role by Toback parodying himself as a philosophizing professor whose lofty rhetoric, aimed at women, contains a dripping "Will-you-fuck-me?" subtext. The sexy, double-cross noir story, filled with glitzy people doing venal things to a soundtrack of classic music, reminds of the glory 1970s days of 35mm hardcore, The Opening of Misty Beethoven and beyond, when money was spent on production values, glamorous-looking performers, and even developing a script. As often before, I ask the question: why doesn’t Toback make, as he could, a really break-through porno movie? Couldn’t torchy Campbell be the XXX-equivalent to Misty Beethoven’s immortal Constance Money?

     Few critics at Toronto, seeing five new movies in a day, could afford time away (3 hours, 40 minutes)for an amazing revival, a newly restored director’s cut of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). I did catch the engrossing documentary accompaniment, Michael Epstein’s 78-minute Final Cut: the Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate. Here was the legendary story of how Cimino, hybris-driven after The Deerhunter, went millions of dollars over budget making Heaven's Gate, driving United Artists into bankruptcy by his runaway production.

     Filmmaker Epstein has superb interviews with still-in-shock UA executives and with Heaven’s Gate actors, Kris Kristofferson and Brad Dourif. Cimino? "Michael declined. I don’t think he has a lot of trust and faith [in the media] telling his story. From a directing point, I was pleased in a way that I didn’t have to tackle Michael: it gave me space. He would have liked a film only about the artistic greatness of his film." Does Epstein agree with those who think Heaven’s Gate was, the first time around, unfairly buried by hostile, negative reviews? "Heaven’s Gate is very different in its rhythms. It doesn’t try to be a video game. If you go with its rhythms, it’s quite a ride. Michael became a fall guy. If Heaven’s Gate came to American made by Bertolucci or Visconti, it would have been hailed as a masterpiece."

      Elsewhere at Toronto:

     ***1/2 Touch the Sound. German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer’s follow-up to his beloved Rivers and Tides is, to my eyes, a far more humane, less smugly pompous work. I’ll take almost-deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, the effervescent heroine of Touch the Sound, over Rivers and Tides’s so-sanctimonious Andy Goldsworthy. Glennie (I’ll admit it: she’s a bluejeaned babe) is followed about the world playing pick-up percussion, and also making an avant-garde CD with amiable Fred Frith, musician’s musician.

     ***1/2 Childstar. A smart, ambitious second feature by Don McKellar, Canadian screenwriter (Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) and actor (Highway 61, Exotica, etc.), Childstar is, instantly, the most underrated, misunderstood film of Toronto 2004, saddled with dismissive reviews in both the local and international press. Here’s a movie both intensely personal and provokingly political, a sardonic tale from just outside the US borders about being stepped on by American imperialism wearing the feel-good face of Hollywood. This film concerns a runaway LA studio action picture being shot in Toronto, taking advantage of the lower Canuck dollar. McKellar plays a version of himself: a Canadian intellectual who is hired by, pulled about by, somewhat seduced by, the American production—they’ve got the cash!—while he clings to his aesthetic integrity, forging tiny experimental movies.

     Maybe it helps to know McKellar off-screen, as I do, and grasp how, for years, he’s resisted lucrative offers to lure him to Hollywood. The face of American arrogance in Childstar? The titular character, a teen kid from the USA who, starring in the movie-within-a-movie as the American president’s gun-toting son, treats everyone about the production (hired Canadians) like immigrant underlings.

     McKellar cast a Canadian, Mark Rendall, in the role. "When Mark first interviewed," McKellar said at a press conference, "I thought he was too nice, not tough enough, not convincing as a prick or an American."

     ***The Merchant of Venice. Director Michael Radford bravely leaves in the anti-Semitic lines, but tries to contextualize them in the first filming ever of the Bard’s most controversial play. Al Pacino struggles a bit with a Jewish accent, but ultimately succeeds as an underplayed Shylock.

     ***Hotel Rwanda. Winner of Toronto’s Audience Award is Terry George’s sometimes stirring, sometimes overdone, historical drama about Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who saved hundreds of Tutsis from murderous Hutus during the 1994 Rwanda holocaust.

     **1/2 Ray. Taylor Hackford’s film bio of Ray Charles is overlong, conventionally told. However, Jamie Foxx, so taxi-cab-driver good in Collateral, excels for the second time in 2004, hitting the road, jack, as a living, breathing, and even soul-singing, Charles.

     **1/2 Palindromes. A perversely religious, almost anti-abortion movie from the always odd Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness), in which a young girl, played in each scene by a different actress, travels through a world of cruelties, many occurring in suburban New Jersey. Sometimes confusing and off-putting, othertimes provocative and powerful, Palindromes probably is a lot more meaningful on a second viewing.

(Boston Phoenix - September 2004)


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