Suit up and plunge: The 27th Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, and diversity is the name of the game in a post-9/11 cinematic world. While New York struggles with loss and recovery, the Toronto festival-which was fatally disrupted during last year’s apocalyptic events-is putting its best foot forward to make everyone pause and enjoy what has become, for movie lovers from every corner of the globe, a bipartisan oasis of art, stimulation and culture. Veterans are calling this year’s marathon the best one ever. With 344 films in 10 days, even the sad-sack cynics are admitting that whatever it is you’re looking for at the movies, you will find it here. If you want it and Toronto doesn’t have it, then you didn’t need it in the first place.
The official program book is so heavy that it makes an already overworked critic’s backpack sag for days. From more than 3,000 submissions, the selection committee chose 80 short films, retrospectives and special events, and 264 features representing 50 countries (194 are world premieres), ranging in style and material from A-list Hollywood productions starring Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman to Aleksandr Sokurov’s curiosity Russian Ark , a historical drama filmed inside St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in one single, uninterrupted 96-minute take that is both something of a technical marvel and something of a bore. On the bill, we’ve got the directorial debuts of actors Denzel Washington and Matt Dillon; a Spanish musical; the latest sex from France and politics from Asia; a series of depressing dossiers on Irish immigrants and Indian prostitutes; a controversial look at the young Adolf Hitler’s secret friendship with the Jewish art teacher Max Rothman, and a tell-all documentary about the infamous Traudl Junge, the Führer ‘s private secretary; and blistering biopics about Frida Kahlo, the bisexual wife of Diego Rivera, and Bob Crane, the murdered star of Hogan’s Heroes , the latter with a career-altering performance by Greg Kinnear. One of the best-received events so far has been the unveiling of 63 minutes of lost silent treasures by Charlie Chaplin from 1917, accompanied by 15 musicians of the Toronto Symphony conducted by film composer Carl Davis. One of the most hotly anticipated events is the gala double premiere on 9/11 of two films about the tragedy that changed the world: The Guys , with Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, based on stories of actual firefighters who lost their lives in the World Trade Center collapse, and 11’09″01 , a full-length collection of 11 short films made by 11 international directors, each lasting for 11 minutes, 9 seconds and one frame. We’ve got Sophia Loren and the acting debut of Eminem, too. If you’re hooked on movies, where else would you want to be? This is not a multiple-choice question.
If Toronto is a gauge of what’s happening in post-9/11 world cinema, I’d say that, from what I’ve seen, filmmakers everywhere are sharing their personal thoughts, dreams and nightmares of a hostile, confusing and often terrifying world the best way they can-in movies that reflect a variety of colors, feelings and rhythms. It may be unnerving to leave the Atom Egoyan film Ararat , about the Armenian genocide of 1915, and run into a statue of ice cream like Catherine Deneuve pausing to admire some rubies in the window of Tiffany’s. Movie images, both arresting. In Toronto, they come at you in sections.
Some of the best American films focus on troubled individuals seeking integrity in times of doubt and corruption. In Peter Kosminsky’s White Oleander , a pretty 15-year-old girl named Astrid (beautifully played by newcomer Alison Lohman), pitched into a void of violence, neglect and oppression, is forced to find strength in her own courage while being shuttled from one foster home to the next after her beautiful, career-driven mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) murders an unfaithful lover in a crime of passion. As the self-absorbed mother’s seductive wiles poison her daughter from behind the bars of a maximum-security prison, the girl falls into the hopeless trap of the legal system, longing for love in all the wrong places: first in the home of a flamboyant born-again Christian (Robin Wright Penn), where the concept of religious group thinking eventually erodes in jealousy and rage, alcohol abuse and guns; then in a state facility for delinquents in the desert, where the only boy who befriends her is a struggling artist who was born addicted to heroin, and where the only thing that thrives is the sickly-sweet odor of white oleander; and finally in the seemingly normal home of a kind but suicidally despairing actress (a dark and unusual role for the traditionally sunny Renée Zellweger) who escapes from her loneliness, depression, crumbling marriage and failed career with an overdose of pills. Each loss plunges Astrid deeper into a harsh abyss of futility and failure, until she learns one of life’s most painful lessons: If you want to survive the past and create a hopeful future, you must forge it from your own resources. Based on the best-seller by Janet Fitch, White Oleander is a wrenching coming-of-age story about three years in the lives of a flawed mother and her damaged child, and the intangible strings that bind them together. Intelligently written, sensitively directed and memorably acted, it provides Michelle Pfeiffer with her most complex role in years, and she plays it magnificently, leaving the Toronto audience in tears.
In The Emperor’s Club , another distinguished mainstream entry with something heart-rending to say about the American character, the time-honored academic tradition of principle and virtue is pitted against the modern concept we’ve been taught by Wall Street: that expeditious lying and cheating is the fastest shortcut to money and power. Kevin Kline plays a dedicated history teacher at a revered prep school, famous for molding the minds and souls of its students. His belief that the value of a life is determined by a great deal more than a single failure or success is about to be sorely tested by the arrival of a new student (Emile Hirsch). This arrogant, rebellious son of a cold, conniving Senator from West Virginia tests his patience, compassion and faith in himself and becomes his most regrettable personal failure after the boy is caught cheating in the annual “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest between scholars of ancient Greek and Roman history, which determines membership in the academy’s esteemed Emperor’s Club. Twenty-five years later, the boy re-emerges, now a rich and famous corporate C.E.O., and pledges the largest donation in the school’s history on the condition that the Emperor’s Club competition be restaged, with the same students-all power players in the fields of industry, law, finance and education-rounded up and given a chance to regain their lost honor, and the graying professor once again acting as the judge. In the riveting, suspenseful reunion that follows, everything has changed and nothing at all. Despite familiar elements that invite inevitable comparisons with everything from Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Dead Poets Society , this is a rare and intelligent work about the timeless issues of morality and integrity in a world of arrogance and greed that seems refreshingly contemporary. Based on the celebrated story by Ethan Canin, The Emperor’s Club is so far above the usual pretentious, self-indulgent jabberwocky one associates with film-festival fodder that it faces the danger of being labeled old-fashioned. But it is so principled, so gorgeously photographed, so skillfully directed by Michael Hoffman, so wisely and immaculately written by Neil Tolkien, and so enriched by Kevin Kline-whose performance is nothing short of inspired-that it impresses me as one of the best American films I’ve seen this year.
Of course, Toronto wouldn’t be the same without the kink factor. Weirdo David Cronenberg, always happy to oblige, has Spider , a gruesome little mood piece with Ralph Fiennes as a grungy, fly-spotted consumptive who arrives in London on a cold rainy day, muttering to himself and writing down all of his thoughts and memories in a dirty notebook hidden in the floorboards of a mournful rooming house across the road from the gasworks, run by a hatchet-faced landlady (Lynn Redgrave) who draws him a tub of rusty bathwater. Doesn’t take long to figure out, does it? The old creep has just been released from a lunatic asylum for hacking either his dad (Gabriel Byrne), his demure mum or his dad’s whorish girlfriend (both played by Miranda Richardson, who steals the movie, or what there is of it) to death with an ax when he was a child named Spider. Actually, maybe it was all three-or maybe it was the fire he lit to burn down the house that did them in, not the ax. The movie’s not too clear on details. Meanwhile, all of their ghosts creep through the pubs and alleys and pallid slum flats reliving the past while Spider huddles in the corner. When the men in white arrive with the straitjacket, it’s not a minute too soon.
Love Liza gives the scruffy, rotund indie-prod veteran Philip Seymour Hoffman another vehicle for stardom in another low-budget wrist-slasher. This time he plays a bereaved husband and lonely oddball who blots out the pain of his wife’s suicide with an addiction to sniffing airplane glue. You read it here first. An unstinting chronicle of one man’s downward spiral along the road to self-destruction, the film offers no solution and takes no moral stand. It just shows a fearless actor wallowing in psychotic misery, leaving home and job, driving to Louisiana for a model-airplane convention, wandering into a lake in the middle of a jet-propelled boat race, gorging on junk food, and repeatedly inhaling gasoline and glue until he passes out. Some people think it could do for Mr. Hoffman what Leaving Las Vegas did for Nicolas Cage, but there’s barely a minute of relief in its meandering tedium. The acting intensity-including Kathy Bates in the small but pivotal role of the mother-in-law who cuddles the suicide note like a teddy bear-is undeniable. But it all seems rather pointless to me.
Equally obtuse, Steven Shainberg’s titillatingly kinky Secretary is about a pretty, baby-faced masochist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has, from the age of 7, rewritten her own rules of the pleasure principle by slashing her skin with sharp objects and burning her thighs with a red-hot tea kettle. After a forced vacation in a loony bin, she finds nirvana as a secretary in a law office where her boss is a closet sadist. In his spaciest role since David Cronenberg’s abominable Crash , James Spader-who majored in weird-injects his orchid collection with hypodermic needles and forces his new secretary to remove staples with her chin and pull faxes out of the fax machine with her teeth while crawling around on all fours in handcuffs. There’s a third banana-brains here-a fellow mental patient who works for J.C. Penney, played by the perpetually eerie Jeremy Davies, who has made a career out of stammering, eye-rolling, tongue-tied neurotics. No wonder the secretary comes to the office with a sewing kit and Band Aids to puncture and bandage herself between phone calls. In her new position, she finds all of the disciplinary authority figures she’s been pining for her whole life. The more bruises she incurs, the more she likes her job. Each cut, each scar, each burn brings a different thrill. Office spankings and bondage come next, but enough is enough. Secretary is a worthless fable about S&M with Xerox machines. It left me numb. The moral, I guess, is that if you let your boss beat the crap out of you, maybe you’ll learn to type better.
Along with the honey, you also get the arsenic. But in Toronto, you get it all first.