FILMS

THE REEL THING

TORONTO’S FILM FESTIVAL UNWRAPS A PARTY PACK OF BIG STARS AND A TREASURE TROVE OF GOOD MOVIES

Brian D. Johnson September 24 1990
FILMS

THE REEL THING

TORONTO’S FILM FESTIVAL UNWRAPS A PARTY PACK OF BIG STARS AND A TREASURE TROVE OF GOOD MOVIES

Brian D. Johnson September 24 1990

THE REEL THING

FILMS

TORONTO’S FILM FESTIVAL UNWRAPS A PARTY PACK OF BIG STARS AND A TREASURE TROVE OF GOOD MOVIES

The guests were so busy devouring the food—fresh oysters, suckling pig, roast pheasant, rack of lamb, salmon, pike, pâté, cakes and crêpes—that few noticed the commotion at first. High above them, on a balcony framed by a Gothic arch in the University of Toronto’s Great Hall, two men in medieval dress were engaged in a sword fight while a damsel screamed in mock distress. The clash of sabres rang through the hall as the swordsmen fought. They lunged. They wrestled. They even did acrobatic flips. But the din of the crowd’s conversation did not let up. Heads turned— then the guests went back to the feast, and to the business of asking each other if they had seen any good movies. It was just another night at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals (Sept. 6 to 15). And the lavish party, staged last week to celebrate the North American première of the French movie Cyrano de Bergerac, was just one more course in a 10-day cinematic feast.

The annual festival is arguably the most important in North America and certainly the most festive. Each year, it competes for the spotlight with the rival Montreal World Film Festival—both are larger than any other festival in Canada or the United States. But after Montreal presented a relatively unspectacular program during its Aug. 23 to Sept. 3 run, Toronto marked its 15 th anniversary with an exceptionally strong lineup of movies and stars. Comparing the Toronto festival with the upcoming New York Film Festival, which starts Sept. 21, American critic Roger Ebert said, “The Toronto festival is much bigger and better organized.” And Jean-Pierre Lenôtre, who writes for the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro, declared: “It’s full of diversity and quality. At the same festival, you get the big shots from the United States and the interesting films to discover.”

This year, the stars in attendance included Clint Eastwood, Marisa Berenson, Liza Minelli, Dennis Hopper, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons and Quincy Jones. And the festival presented world premières of new features by some of the most respected independent filmmakers, including two directors whose movies dominated this year’s Oscars. Australian Bruce Beresford, the hand behind the wheel of Driving Miss Daisy, presented Mister Johnson, another period drama about a black man salvaging dignity from servitude; Irishman Jim Sheridan, who made the redemptive My Left Foot, exorcised the historic anger of the Irish peasantry in The Field. Britain’s Stephen Frears, who made 17th-century subterfuge stylish with Dangerous Liaisons (1988), explored deception from a more contemporary angle in The Grifters, a story of Los Angeles con artists. As well, the avuncular American veteran Robert Altman unveiled his first largescale movie in a decade, Vincent and Theo, an engaging saga about painter Vincent van Gogh and his brother.

Meanwhile, Canadian films made a strong impression. The opening-night selection, Perfectly Normal, Yves Simoneau’s charming comedy about beer, hockey and opera in working-class Ontario, launched the festival on a buoyant note. A number of movies that had already drawn acclaim at the Montreal festival repeated their success in Toronto— from Une Histoire inventée (An Imaginary Tale), Quebec director Marc-André Forcier’s serenely surreal fantasy of jazz and romance, to Princes in Exile, a realistic and heartwarming drama about a summer camp for children with cancer by National Film Board director Giles Walker.

But the Canadian offering that became a sentimental favorite was The Company of Strangers, a daring and original movie about seven old women marooned in the Quebec countryside when their bus breaks down. A drama crafted with documentary techniques, it employs a cast of non-actors who simply play themselves. Its director, the NFB’S Cynthia Scott, arrived in Toronto fresh from her triumph at the small but influential Venice Film Festival, where her movie received a rare standing ovation at a screening for critics the previous week. A review in the Paris newspaper Le Monde declared: “You’ll adore these old women. Scott portrays their lives with remarkable tenderness and toughness.”

One of the most exciting American movies at the festival was another first feature directed by a woman using innovative documentary techniques. Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones is an astonishing portrait of the American maestro, from his early days playing jazz trumpet with Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker to his later role as record producer for such singers as Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

Director Ellen Weissbrod weaves the footage into a mesmerizing collage of sound and image to create a comprehensive and candid portrait of her subject.

Biographical realism was oddly prominent in the festival’s program—and not just in documentaries. Characters portrayed in feature dramas include: legendary movie director John Huston, former attempted-murder suspect Claus von Bulow, Polish Holocaust martyr Janusz Korczak, Canadian battlefront surgeon Norman Be thune, the van Gogh brothers and another set of brothers, the Kray twins, notorious British thugs who are serving life sentences for murder.

In White Hunter, Black Heart, Eastwood portrays a thinly disguised version of Huston. The story is based on the film-maker’s quest to kill an elephant while waiting to film The African Queen (1951) with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Shot on location in Nigeria, the movie hinges completely on Eastwood’s performance, which is strained. The actordirector steps sharply out of character to attempt a baroque and unconvincing impersonation of the cantankerous Huston.

Beresford’s Mister Johnson, based on the 1939 novel by Joyce Cary, is another movie set in colonial Africa. Huston, in fact, had tried for years to film the novel—which features a black hero—but was unable to because the studios did not allow blacks to take on lead roles. Starring as Mr. Johnson, a resourceful clerk who runs afoul of British authorities, Nigerian stage actor Maynard Eziashi delivers an extraordinary performance. But the aimless beauty of Beresford’s period drama, which is colored like a National Geographic paradise, tends to soften its impact.

In a more contemporary vein, Reversal of Fortune, the von Bulow story, combines inspired casting with a lethal dose of wit. The role of the shadowy murder suspect fits British actor Jeremy Irons like a white silk glove. Based on the book by von Bulow’s lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, Reversal of Fortune chronicles the sensational case in which von Bulow was first convicted, then acquitted of using potentially fatal injections of insulin to murder his wife, Sunny (Glenn Close), who has been in a coma since 1980. Savoring every scene, Irons plays an outrageously black-humored von Bulow. And right to the end, the movie remains deliciously enigmatic on the question of von Bulow’s guilt or innocence. Irons said that, although he did not meet von Bulow, he knew in his own mind whether he was guilty. “Yes, I did know,” he said, “and no, I won’t tell you.”

In Reversal of Fortune, Irons toys with the ambiguity of evil, terrain familiar from his portrayal of twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers (1988). There is nothing subtle about the evil twins in The Krays. An intelligent but viciously brutal thriller, it charts the sinister lives of Reginald and Ronald Kray, mobsters who unleashed a reign of terror in the London underworld during the late 1960s. Brothers Gary and Martin Kemp (from the British pop band Spandau Ballet) portray the Krays with coldblooded conviction. And as their embittered mother, actress Billie Whitelaw adds a raw crosswind of feminist rage to a drama of male cruelty.

By contrast, Robert Altman studies more benign brothers in Vincent and Theo. The movie focuses on the obsessive relationship between the impoverished Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, an art dealer who sold only one of his brother’s paintings while Vincent was alive. After working for the past decade on the smaller scale of television work and film adaptations of plays, Altman returns to a large canvas with Vincent and Theo. The film, which features superb performances by British actors Tim Roth and Paul Rhys, unfolds with the leisurely, off-kilter style that has become Altman’s trademark. He told Maclean’s in an interview that he wanted to deflate the heroic myths surrounding a famous artist. “I looked at it as the story of a failed person,” he said. “He was like a hippie or a beatnik.”

On the morning of the première, Altman sat over a plate of bacon and a pot of decaffeinated coffee in his hotel room and acknowledged that he was nervous. “You always worry about whether people will like your work,” he said, faintly echoing van Gogh’s own anxiety. Like many fine American directors, Altman has had trouble getting work in Hollywood—“They’re afraid we’ll take control of their films, and they’re right,” he said. “These movies that make over $100 million—Die Hard, Lethal Weapon—I just don’t know how to make them and I don’t want to.” Without the Hollywood machine behind him, he relies on film festivals for exposure. “You need something to get attention,” he explained.

Festival movies tend to be more challenging than standard Hollywood fare, often tackling serious issues. Whoopi Goldberg visited Toronto to promote The Long Walk Home, about an upper-middle-class housewife (Sissy Spacek) who sides with her maid (Goldberg) during the 1955 bus boycott by blacks in Montgomery, Ala. In an odd reversal of Driving Miss Daisy, the white matron ends up chauffeuring the black servant. Honest but flatly scripted, it condemns American racism across the safe distance of history.

Some of the festival’s European movies about injustice are less heartwarming. German film-maker Michael Verhoeven eviscerates the Third Reich’s modem legacy in The Nasty Girl, an inventive satire about a young woman who struggles to uncover a small town’s Nazi secrets. Polish director Ryszard Bugajski, now living in Toronto, presented Interrogation, a harrowing drama about imprisonment and the torture of an innocent woman. A masterful work, it resurfaced at the Cannes Film Festival last May after being banned by Polish authorities since 1982. Meanwhile, a new SovietAmerican co-production titled Decay dramatizes the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster with chilling results. Directed by Ukrainian Mikhail Belikov, Decay graphically portrays the tragedy of the disaster while condemning the authorities for reacting too slowly.

In the West, film-makers tend to focus on a more fanciful form of decay, the kind called decadence. The dark cynicism of pulp fiction— moody dramas about shallow women and quietly menacing men—seems heavily in vogue. The festival featured two new movies based on works by California pulp novelist Jim Thompson: After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters. Both involve gothic triangles of romance and betrayal—as does The Hot Spot, an audaciously dirty gem directed by Dennis Hopper. Torrid and tawdry, The Hot Spot stars a quietly smouldering Don Johnson as a drifter caught between two sexpot stereotypes, a voracious tease and a sweet young birdbrain. The Hot Spot is vacuous, but it is hot.

Several Canadian movies at the festival explore sex more starkly. H, a low-budget first film by Toronto director Darrell Wasyk, features some physically—and emotionally—explicit lovemaking. It is a claustrophobic story of two lovers trying to kick a heroin habit while locked in a basement apartment. It is too rough, raw and unrelenting for the mainstream, but it features a stunning performance by Quebec actress Pascale Montpetit. Graphic striptease sequences heat up Le Party, a drama about a burlesque troupe that performs for a raucous prison audience. Directed by Quebec film-maker Pierre Falardeau, it is based on an event organized by former FLQ member Frances Simard while he was in jail during the 1970s. Le Party is impressive. But its rude realism fails to unlock the story’s dramatic potential—and make the leap of faith from life to art.

White Room, the new feature by Toronto director Patricia Rozema, takes the leap too far. Many fans of Rozema’s 1987 hit, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, expressed disappointment in her new movie. Kate Nelligan and Sheila McCarthy play rival eccentrics in a tale of murder and voyeurism. The images are elegant, but the drama gets stuck in an overworked web of artifice.

White Room and Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart opened on the same night. The movies are utterly different but both suffer from too much imagination, rather than too little. Eastwood and Rozema, the veteran and the novice, both took risks. Although not everyone agreed that the gambles paid off, the movies provoked the sort of debate that film festivals thrive on. At a midnight dinner after the two premières, the pixieish McCarthy sat locked in conversation with the pixieish Liza Minelli—they were making a movie together in Toronto. Eastwood held court at the centre of the table, a Hollywood elder statesman. Celebrity critics Rex Reed and Roger Ebert sat nearby. And as the waiters served dessert, artistic issues of success and failure dissolved in the forgiving glow of another festival night.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON