Catch a rising star

Cool movies and hot talent light up Toronto's film festival

Brian D. Johnson September 16 1996

Catch a rising star

Cool movies and hot talent light up Toronto's film festival

Brian D. Johnson September 16 1996

Catch a rising star


Cool movies and hot talent light up Toronto's film festival


Piers Handling seems slightly embarrassed, like a party host whose guest list got out of control. The party is the 21st annual Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 5 to 14). And, as its director,

Handling has seen it burgeon into a hugely successful phenomenon—the Cannes of North America. This year, the list of stars expected to converge on the festival is overwhelming. Tom Hanks, AÍ Pacino, Demi Moore, Hugh Grant,

Whoopi Goldberg, Gerard Depardieu, Anjelica Huston, Faye Dunaway, Matthew Broderick,

Marisa Tomei, Matt Dillon, Martin Sheen, Debbie Reynolds, Albert Brooks, Gena Rowlands, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Bacon, Cher—and, oh yes, French director Jean-Luc Godard. “The list goes on and on,” said Handling, interviewed just before the festival’s opening last week. “It’s exhilarating and very flattering. But I really hope the media doesn’t just gorge out on the obvious movie stars.”

Wait, isn’t that the whole point of a film festival—the stars, the limos, the flashy premières? Yes and no. Hollywood glamor greases the machine, attracting the media and helping to seduce the corporate sponsors that fuel the festival’s ecology (there is an official coffee, beer, wine and mineral water). But the Toronto festival has always prided itself on unearthing unknown talents, spotlighting foreign film-makers from Asia to Latin America—and showing off the cream of Canadian cinema. It also serves as an annual schmoozefest for the Canadian industry—a festival breakfast is the scene of Heritage Minister Sheila Copps’s planned announcement this week of a fresh influx of $100 million for domestic film and TV production.

But as commercial interests converge on it, the festival—like the film community that created it—is undergoing an identity crisis. “The real challenge now,” says Handling, “is to maintain a balance between our real role, which is to discover new work from around the world—including films that may never be distributed here—and showcasing work that’s about to go into release. There’s more

and more pressure to act as a showcase.”

With 274 films from 70 countries, the festival still offers an exotic variety of choices (page 64). They range from Michael Collins, director Neil Jordan’s controversial epic starring Liam Neeson as the father of Irish independence, to a series of films from Vietnam. And there is a astonishing number of directorial debuts by Hollywood actors, including Hanks, Huston,

Pacino, Broderick, Cher, Spacey and Bacon.

But as American stars show up in Toronto to unveil their work, some of Canada’s leading film-makers seem to have gone missing.

Although there is no ironclad policy, for years the Toronto festival has tried to première a prominent Canadian film at its opening-night gala, or at least something by a Canadian film-maker. But the country’s best directors tend to make dark, disturbing films, pictures that do not exactly create a festive mood among the black-tie patrons who show up looking for a good time on opening night.

In 1992, the first-nighters watched a cat being sexually violated in Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo. Other opening-night treats from Canada have included Black Robe, which ends in genocide, and three films ending in suicide—Robert Lepage’s Le confessionnal and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly.

This year’s most prominent Canadian film is Cronenberg’s Crash, about characters who get sexually aroused by car accidents. It caused a sensation in Cannes. But everyone involved—the director, the distributor and the festival—hastily agreed that Crash would be unsuitable for Toronto’s opening night. Trying to keep a lid on the film’s controversy until its release next month, the distributor decided not to show it at all. Handling then tried to snare Lepage’s new movie, Le Polygraphe, but lost it to the rival Venice Film Festival, which coincides with the Toronto event.

And yet another Canadian film by a marquee director, Bruce McDonald’s superb Hard Core Logo, slipped out of reach. As a satirical punk “rockumentary” with a splash of suicide, it was not a candidate for

opening night. But the distributor kept it out of the festival altogether, electing instead to show it in the less frenzied climes of upcoming film festivals in Sudbury, Ont., and Vancouver.

In the end, Toronto launched its festival on Sept. 5 on an unusually light note with the première of Fly Away Home. A Hollywood makeover of a Canadian story about training geese to fly south, it serves as an apt, if inadvertent, metaphor for a Canadian film industry whose talent routinely migrates south. The next night, the festival unveiled another family picture, Canadian director Norman Jewison’s Bogus, a Hollywood movie set mostly in Newark, N.J., and shot mostly in Toronto (page 60). Fly Away Home and Bogus are both heartwarming fables about children who lose their mothers. And, coincidentally, they both open with a fatal car crash—it is as if Cronenberg’s Crash somehow insinuated itself into the festival in spite of everything.

Fly Away Home is a rare hybrid. Unlike most Hollywood movies shot in Canada, it does not mask its Canadian location—there is a rhapsodic shot of geese swooping towards Toronto’s CN Tower. But it is a local story gone south, a high-flying Hollywood flick clothed in Canada goose down.

Movies produced by actual Canadians tend to get made on a wing and a prayer. And many would never be made without public funding. Half the $2-million budget for David Wellington’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night came from the federal agency Telefilm Canada. Co-funded by the CBC, it is an exceptional work, a brilliantly consummated marriage between film and theatre (page 64). But, as one of three stage adaptations among the season’s new Canadian movies, it is also a marriage of convenience, reflecting a mood of pragmatic austerity in an industry afflicted by funding cuts.

That is why the Copps announcement this week comes as a welcome tonic. Mysteriously digging an extra $100 million out of her budget, she has doubled funds for broadcast and cable production—which

film-makers rely on—to $200 million. And half of the increase is specifically earmarked for CBC production. Welcoming the news, producer Robert Lantos, CEO of Alliance Communications Corp. of Toronto, told Maclean’s: “We can compete with no subsidies of any sort, but to do that, we have to create a product which is not too dissimilar to what comes out of our competitors’ factories in Los Angeles.”

But what is a Canadian movie? Like the national identity, the whole notion seems to be up for grabs. After directing Jessica Tandy’s final movie {Camilla), Toronto director Deepa Mehta returned to India, her birthplace, to make Fire. Wellington found inspiration for his film in a classic American play being staged in Stratford, Ont. Other Canadians films selected by the festival include a documentary shot in Russia {Moscow Summer) and a porn farce set in Los Angeles {Hustler White). It is an wildly uncommercial selection, dominated by dramas of sexual transgression. A partial survey:

Fire opened Perspective Canada, the festival’s showcase of homegrown cinema. But it is shot in New Delhi with a largely Indian cast and no public money from Canada. Although Mehta is based in Toronto, an unwitting viewer would have a hard time identifying Fire as a Canadian movie. It is a contemporary drama about a shy lesbian romance that flowers between two Indian sisters-in-law who are neglected by their husbands. One husband has a Chinese mistress; the other has taken a spiritual vow of celibacy.

Sensually photographed and simply scripted, the film is a feminist morality tale that pits desire against repression. It features a radiant performance by the lovely Shabana Azmi, whose eyes convey a subtle vulnerability and depths of unspoken intelligence. Fire's drama of sapphic liberation—an inflammatory challenge to Indian patriarchy—is idealized, and somewhat schematic. But it has a beguiling beauty.

Swann is a British-Canadian co-production in which cultural identity gets even more convoluted. Adapted from a novel by Winnipeg writer Carol Shields, it stars English actress Miranda Richardson as a famous American author writing about an obscure poet from small-town Ontario who was murdered by her husband. There seem to be more heroines than heroes in the new Canadian films, and Swann dike Fire) has two of them.

Richardson’s character comes to depend on a nervous librarian (Brenda Fricker), who has inherited the poet’s legacy. Richardson and Fricker make an engaging pair as the urbane author and the naïve librarian, two strong but skittish women besieged by ambivalence. And Swann offers a witty glimpse into the literary world, offset by a sobering look at the shredding and pulping of unsold literature. But the male characters lack depth. And by planting the seeds of a thriller—gothic flashbacks to the poet’s murder—British film-maker Anna Benson Gyles sets up expectations that are never quite fulfilled.

lilies, an elaborate period drama, is the most ambitious of the new features.

Quebec dramatist Michel Marc Bouchard adapted the script from his own play and it is directed by gay iconoclast John Greyson, who made Zero Patience (1994), a musical satire about AIDS. In Lilies, which begins in 1952, an aging bishop arrives at a prison to hear an inmate’s confession. But it is a trap.

The bishop is forced to watch a gang of prisoners reenact the inmate’s adolescence—when he and the bishop were rivals in a homosexual triangle. The allmale cast, from a mincing Brent Carver to a scowling Gary Farmer, is impressive. Female roles are played by men in drag, a device that becomes especially arch as the prison play segues into flashbacks to a summer resort at the turn of the century. The period scenarios are ripe with ironic detail—costumed aristocrats taking tea with mosquitoes in the Quebec bush. Unlike Long Day’s Journey, this is a stage play taken outside, way outside. But the story is hard to penetrate, the direction is coy and the intrigue anticlimactic. That, however, did not stop filmgoers at the recent Montreal World Film festival from voting Lilies the “best Canadian feature” award.

The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati, a stage adaptation on a much smaller scale, harnesses the comic brilliance of Alan Williams. Directed by Michael McNamara, Williams has adapted his series of one-man plays, The Cockroach Trilogy. Playing a borderline psychotic called the Captain, Williams delivers a featurelength rant that rummages through the heroic delusions—and disillusionment—of the rock ’n’ roll revolution. The movie is framed

with a shambling mock-documentary conceit. But Williams’s performance is astounding. In uncut takes that run for ages, he talks to the camera while performing bizarre tasks, such as trying to set fire to a shopping cart full of wood at night. Give the man a job on This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

Kissed is the tale of a demure young necrophiliac. Based on a short story by Toronto writer Barbara Gowdy, it is more tasteful than it sounds. Molly Parker is utterly compelling and strangely sympathetic

as a woman whose job in a funeral parlor becomes a labor of love. Making her feature debut, Vancouver film-maker Lynne Stopkewich directs with a delicate touch. She portrays her heroine’s obsession as a purifying romance, less vulgar in fact than her boyfriend’s prurient interest in it.

Kissed is a slender but affecting drama. And, while there are no feminist jokes about dead white males making the best lovers, it is laced with gallows humor. There is a masterful scene in which an undertaker bluntly demonstrates the art of embalming to his new apprentice. The camera, thankfully, does not show the body, but as he performs the procedure, precisely explaining each step, the imagination fills in the rest.

Shoemaker is another feature debut that deals with inappropriate love. And it, too, is a diminutive drama. (Whether through fi-

nancial or artistic frugality, the new model for Canadian cinema seems to be the 80minute movie with one-and-a-half characters.) Shoemaker is a bittersweet tale of an underachieving Forrest Gump—a mentally challenged cobbler (Hardee T. Lineham) who courts an attractive travel agent (Alberta Watson), while his fellow shoemaker and sole friend (Randy Hughson) looks askance. With pathos outweighing passion, the lopsided romance is hard to swallow— it seems even more unlikely than the one in Kissed. But novice director Colleen \ Murphy draws convincing performances from her actors, and tells a touching story.

Sous-sol (Not Me!) is about an 11-year-old boy who glimpses his parents having torrid sex and then assumes, when his father is found dead the next morning, that his mother has killed him. When the mother takes on an insatiable young % lover, the boy becomes vengefully

jealous. Sensitively directed by Pierre Gang, Louise Portal (The Decline of the American Empire) makes a memorable impression as the mother, but in the end drama fizzles.

Trouble, a first feature by Calgary writerdirector Paul DiStefano, is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino might make if he underwent shock therapy, popped enough Quaaludes and moved to the Great White North. It is a deadpan heist flick about an artist who lives in his mother’s garage and gets mixed up with a buddy’s daffy scheme to rob a band of Brink’s bandits. Trouble has amusing moments, but is doomed by leaden pacing and a ridiculous script.

Hustler White, one of two gay hustler movies (along with Quebec’s L’escorte), comes from porn provocateur Bruce LaBruce. The director co-stars with Tony Ward, a former Madonna’s boy toy, in a documentary-like tour of the gay sex trade in

Los Angeles. Draped in a condom-thin plot, the film—like so much pornography—is by turns boring and shocking. With clearly unsimulated scenes of razorblade masochism and amputee fetishism (don’t ask), voyeur-discretion is advised.

Project Grizzly is no less bizarre but infinitely more watchable. Directed by Toronto film-maker Peter Lynch for the National Film Board, it is an entertaining documentary feature about a man’s attempt to build a suit of armor that can withstand a grizzly-bear attack. Troy Hurtibise—a scrap-metal dealer, bear researcher and self-styled mountain man based in North Bay,

Ont.—has spent seven years and $150,000 perfecting the 145-lb. suit, which was inspired by the movie RoboCop. The movie documents a hilarious series of tests, as Hurtibise is wacked by two-by-fours, hit by a pickup truck and flung off the Niagara Es-

carpment. Then, loaded for bear, he goes looking for a grizzly in Alberta with a wellarmed crew of doughnut-shop cronies. It is a quixotic quest, a Field and Stream excursion into the absurd.

Power, a more serious documentary, delivers the dramatic and revealing inside story of the David-and-Goliath battle between the James Bay Cree and Hydro Quebec. Montreal director Magnus Isacsson spent five years filming the Crees’ fight to stop the utility from damming the Great Whale River. And his film, a time-lapse portrait of an epic struggle, transcends journalism. Isacsson’s camera is present at every turn of the amazing story, from the Crees’ 1,500-km odeyak odyssey to Manhattan to an outbreak of bitter dissension over Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come’s leadership. Power is about beating the odds with perseverance, ingenuity and blind luck— qualities that are also essential in making Canadian films. □