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The 30th Toronto International Film Festival

      I'm back from the 30th Toronto International Film Festival, where there were more stars this year than in heaven or Hollywood. I know, because I saw their glam photos—Gwyneth and Johnny and Jake-- every day in Canadian newspapers. I know, because I'd check them out each night--Kirsten and Orlando and Joaquin--on a cable station devoted to Fest coverage. Apparently, there were amazing parties; and the A-list thespians locked in the VIP Room at these parties (I watched them interviewed on my hotel TV) had meaningful "journeys" (Jungian actorspeak) doing the high-end movies which brought them to Toronto. "The director created a safe place to create," I found out, and "That actress took me under her wing," I was told, and "When a script comes along like this, you just do it, you don't care about the money."


     My 2005 celeb-rubbing? I did meet Entertainment Tonight's Leonard Maltin, who seems a sweet man, and there across the pub at the only festivity I attended was Rex Reed, eponymous lead in Myra Breckinridge (1970) and ex-panelist of The Gong Show. A legend! This promotional party was short on today's stars (Cameron Diaz, in Toronto, was a no-show) but delivered, as promised by the invite, in boiled lobsters and oysters on the half shell. I ate and ran, skipping the film behind the theme-based feast, Brooklyn Lobster, a said-to-be-wacky US indie based on the family-owned lobster shop of the director, Kevin Jordan. It sounded too clammy for this unabashed freeloader.

     What was the alternative at Toronto 2005 to star-driven blockbusters like In Her Shoes and Elizabethtown, and to Sundance-style mainstream independendents like this Brooklyn Lobster? As with many "mole-like creatures" (columnist Liz Smith's apt description of film critics), I spent a week embedded with small-budget Canadian works, serious-minded foreign features, and intense documentaries. Fortunately, there were far more of these playing than glitzy flicks, though it's harder each year at Toronto for the little movies to breathe, to be discovered.

     The three best features I saw at Toronto 2005:

     The Proposition-John Hillcoat's brilliant, profane anti-western, set in the late 19th century Australian Outback. It's actually the best, and most genuine, western made in decades, as sensually sweaty and violent as Peckinpah, with a lean, mean anti-hero at the center, played with fierce authority by Guy Pearce, echoing Clint Eastwood's classic Man With No Name. Who could know that singer Nick Cave could write screenplays? He did this one in three weeks, about three rough-and-tough outlaw brothers, and it's a dilly.

     Aussie Hillcoat informed the Toronto press that The Proposition was motivated by his love of 1970s American revisionist westerns. But Pearce balked when the filmmaker gave him homework, to watch and study McCabe and Mrs. Miller and other 1970s Hollywood works. "After a while they became pointless to me," the actor told a TV-based critic. "Those movies have an American view, and this is an Australian story."

     C.R.A.Z.Y- Jean-Marc Vallee's lovely, stirring tale of a young boy growing up gay in a blue-collar Montreal family is already one of the biggest box-office movies ever in Quebec. It's hard to imagine how anyone except a rabid homophobe could resist such charming, funny, emotional storytelling. If there's a movie to change the consciousness of those who insist homosexuality is a "choice," this is it, and without Vallee ever being didactic or oversentimental. C.R.A.Z.Y takes place in the 1970s and 1980s, and the chief story is about the tension of young Zac struggling to be a real "man" and keep the love of his traditional-value dad. He tries hooking up with a girl, but there's this cute-assed male ballroom dancer, and the androgynous songs of David Bowie!

     Paradise Now-A ripped-from-the-headlines narrative of two young Islamic men entering Israel as suicide bombers. It's made with astonishing insider knowledge of such operations by the talented Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad (Ford Transit, Rana's Wedding), who lives and works in Amsterdam. Paradise Now utilized an Israeli co-producer, Amir Harel, so there are actual locations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where the West Bank duo travel to blow themselves up. Tense stuff!

     To its credit, Paradise Now never tells the audience what to think, but it seems possible to deduce that Abu-Assad is sympathetic to the desperation of his Arab protagonists but that he's against suicide operations as a solution. It's a position that many liberal Americans, including Jewish progressives (count me in!) can endorse, maybe why Warner Independent Pictures, the classics division of Warner Brothers, dared buy this explosive movie.

     "I thought it was a joke, when I saw the Time-Warner logo," Abu-Assad told a Toronto audience. "But it's not a joke. I have to thank Warner Independent. Did Warner make any changes? No. Don't worry! And yhey'll distribute it!   Paradise Now will start soon in Palestinian cities. In October, it will play cities in Israel and the U.S."

     The Best Documentary of Toronto 2005? Micha Peled's China Blue, a heartbreaking, truly unforgettable "cinema verite" stay with two teenage girls employed in a Chinese bluejean factory. It's even worse than the news stories, the exploitation, degradation, and downright slavery of millions of Chinese peasants who have traveled to the cities looking for work. 17-hour days are "normal," toiling seven days a week is "normal," being fined days several days' salary for leaving the factory dormitory and visiting the town is "normal," not getting paid at all is "normal." Filmmaker Peled, an Israeli who lives in San Francisco, spent several months with his two girls, even filming the day that the factory workers threatened a strike (illegal in China) after not anyone having been paid a cent in months. Victory! Wal-Mart got its jeans! The workers got their salaries, about 12 cents an hour! This is globalization, the free trade endorsed in America by both Republicans and Democrats.

     Of the more mainstream movies I saw at Toronto? Roman Polanski disappointed with a competent but not especially moving Oliver Twist, a film strangely impersonal since Polanski was, like young Oliver, traumatized by his orphaned childhood, as a Jewish victim of Hitler. Speaking of Jews, how's Ben Kingley's Fagin? He starts off interesting and definitely Semitic, hooknosed and rotten-toothed and with a macabre effeminate drawl. But the character becomes stagnant, and why Fagin hangs out with young-boy thieves (a theme ripe for the new millenium) is unexplored. I prefer Alec Guinness's slurpy, unctuous version in the 1948 David Lean classic.  

     The Toronto Fest's nicest surprise: Wassup Rockers, a sweet-natured, genuinely humanist film from sordid, drug-absorbed, Tulsa photographer, Larry Clark (Kids, Bully). This one follows a group of Salvadorean skateboarder teens from Southeast LA as they make a foray to Beverly Hills High to leap off the famous seven steps. Where were they for the Toronto opening? "These are really nice kids," the filmmaker explained. "They don't do drugs, they don't smoke. They're in school!"

(Boston Phoenix - September 2005)



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