Celebrating Celebrity

Brian D. Johnson September 18 2000

Celebrating Celebrity

Brian D. Johnson September 18 2000

Celebrating Celebrity


The Toronto festival’s hottest films, from Stardom to The Contender, are all about fame

Brian D. Johnson

After an exceptionally lacklustre summer on the big screen, it’s time to get serious about movies again. The Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 7 to 16), now celebrating its 25th anniversary, has come to mark the unofficial launch of the fall season. It’s where Hollywood often unveils its “prestige” pictures, where indie gems first catch the light—and where Canadian cinema shows off its fall crop. The festival also provides an early barometer for the Academy Awards. Last year, it premièred American Beauty, Cider House Rules and Boys Don’t Cry, which swept eight top Oscar categories. As the festival presents 329 films from 56 countries— and plays host to a horde of stars, including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Sarah Jessica Parker—everyone is looking for the next American Beauty.

It may not exist. But a number of premières are generating a buzz. And with the celebrity satire of Stardom—by Quebec director Denys Arcand—setting the tone as the openingnight gala, celebrity itself is a pervasive theme. It can be found

in Cameron Crowe’s surefire hit Almost Famous, which trips rock ’n’ roll delusions of grandeur in the early ’70s. It surfaces again in State and Main, David Mamet’s mordant comedy about the otherworldly egos of a Hollywood film crew riding roughshod over a small town. And celebrity takes a canine twist in Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, a niffy comedy about dog owners trying to make stars of their pets. But the most timely movie about stardom is The Contender, a richly compelling political drama with a switchblade edge of satire. It’s like The West Wing writ large. Joan Allen stars as a U.S. vice-presidential nominee who becomes the target of a sexual smear campaign. Portraying the president, a savvy liberal with shark-like cunning, Jeff Bridges is a Democrat’s wet dream. Due for release on Oct. 13, The Contender should hit Al Gore’s campaign like an injection of B-12.

The festival is also showing 25 new Canadian features (including three European co-productions), although this is a relatively weak year for Canadian cinema. Of the home-

grown films, the most dynamic is Maelstrom, Montreal writer-director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his 1998 debut, Un 32 août sur terre. A magnetic Marie-Josée Croze plays an affluent beauty whose life spins into turmoil after she undergoes an abortion, kills a man in a hit-and-run accident and becomes involved with his son. Filmed with a dynamic force that recalls the late Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski ( Three Colours), Maelstrom is far from mainstream fare—a surreal narration by a talking fish serves as a framing device—but Villeneuve shows he is a talent to watch.

Two more seasoned Quebec directors, Arcand and Robert Lepage, chose Toronto to launch English-language features. Arcand’s Stardom, tracking the rise and fall of a fashion model from Cornwall, Ont., is riddled with witty asides but lacks the resonance of his landmark works, Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989). Even as Stardom explores the moral vacuum of celebrity, it seems suffocated by it.

Lepage, shooting in English for the first time, premières Possible Worlds. From the hypnotic images of the opening credits floating on water, the film is awash with visual intrigue. Beauty abounds. But although the camera takes the play outdoors, to the Magdalen Islands, the script—adapted by John Mighton from his own play—is flatly theatrical. Echoing the dualism that haunts so much of Lepage’s work, the film focuses on two characters (Tom McCamus and Tilda Swinton), who live several different lives at once. After the ingenuity of Le Confessionnal (1995) and the brio of No (1998), with Possible Worlds, Lepage is entrancing as ever, but becalmed in a limbo between the worlds of stage and screen.

Cerebral films with split-focus narratives dominate this year’s Canadian crop. If single-minded heroism is the hard currency of American movies, Canada seems fixated on tales of divided identity and dramatic paralysis. Deeply, a Maritime gothic yarn by Toronto’s Sheri Elwood, reels between past and present, the dialogue inflected with “Maritime” accents that range from Cape Breton to Blanche Dubois. The Law of Enclosures, a grim drama from John Greyson {Lilies), flips between lovers in a strangled romance (Sarah Polley, Brendan Fletcher), and their aged selves (Diane Ladd, Sean McCann) setding into a log dream home. While Greyson’s camera dotes on the intestinal maze of oil refineries in Sarnia, Ont., Calgary filmmaker Gary Burns constructs waydowntown as an urban labyrinth: office workers take bets to see who can last the longest without venturing outdoors.

With two dozen Canadian films thrown together, there is a convergence of themes—notably alienation, amnesia, abortion, disease, drug abuse and drowning. Of four movies dealing with addiction, Clement Virgo’s Love Come Down stands out. Picking up the lyrical thread of Rude (1995), Virgo’s first feature, the Toronto writer-director draws dyna-

A rock’n roll coming of age

Almost Famous

Directed by Cameron Crowe

The terms “personal film” and “Flollywood movie” are rarely synonymous, but this juicy offering from American writer-director Cameron Crowe is an exception to the rule. Crowe’s career has escalated from the cherry-bomb cheek of Fast Times at RidgemontHigh (1982), which he wrote, to the Tom Cruise rocketry of Jerry Maguire (1996), which he wrote,

directed and produced. He wears all three hats once again to make the semi-autobiographical Almost Famous, a coming-of-age tale that unfolds as a witty, tender and richly observed flashback to rock ’n’ roll’s glory days.

The movie is closely based on Crowe’s experience as a San Diego teenager who kickstarted a career in rock journalism at 15, and was on the staff of Rolling Stone by 16. Patrick Fugit makes an engaging debut as Crowe’s fictional alter ego, William, a nerdy adolescent who bluffs his way

into a Rolling Stone assignment to write a feature about a mid-level rock band called Stillwater. William is the ultimate fan, thrilled to be admitted into the world of the backstage pass.

But as he goes on the road with the band, befriending the musicians and their retinue of “band aids”—glorified groupies—William starts to lose his bearings. He develops a crush on band aid princess Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). And as the line between “on” and “off” the record is blurred in the general debauchery, he experiences the classic dilemma of the journalist who gets too close to his subject.

Crowe has put together a terrific cast. Frances McDormand is a treat as the boy’s alarmed mother. An acidic Philip Seymour Hoffman frames the story with manifestolike rants as the boy’s mentor, the late rock critic Lester Bangs. And with the quiedy compelling Billy Crudup starring as Stillwater’s self-possessed guitarist, Crowe draws a priceless backstage portrait of an early ’70s rock band. Although the mode is unplugged realism, not heavy-metal farce, Almost Famous is often reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), the movie that remains the gold standard in rock ’n roll satire. And with Spinal Tap being re-released in theatres and on DVD this week, the comic potential of rock’s golden years has never seemed richer.


mite performances from a cast that includes singer Deborah Cox. The plot feels contrived, but Virgo has a great eye and an instinct for emotional truth. Love Come Down focuses on two brothers, an angry boxer (Martin Cummins) and a recovering addict (Larenz Tate). Cummins pops up again as a heroin addict in his own rough-hewn directing debut, We All Fall Down. And Leonard Farlinger’s moving first feature, The Perfect Son, presents another pair of brothers, one a recovering addict (David Cubitt) and the other dying of AIDS (Colm Feore). No one ever said Canadian movies were supposed to be fun.

Many of Canada’s top directors, however, are between movies—which means they were free to volunteer short films for a series of 10 “Preludes” to celebrate the festival’s silver anniversary. And, aside from serving as a candid snapshot of the Canadian cinematic pantheon, the Preludes are fun.

As if inscribing the Bible on a grain of rice, Winnipeg wizard Guy Maddin squeezes a virtual feature into six kaleidoscopic minutes with The Heart of the World, a melodrama shot like a faux artifact of silent film. Atom Egoyan composes The Line as a continuous shot of a festival queue encompassing a quarter century. And with Camera, a funny and poignant meditation on death and the moving image, David Cronenberg makes what may be the most personal film of his career: on video, a father talks about aging as his kids play with a giant movie camera, and prepare him for his close-up.

And the festival ambushed its opening-night audience with Congratulations, a side-splitting spoof by Newfoundland director Mike Jones. Shot in the earnest style of a vintage CBC documentary, it shows Jones—along with sister Cathy Jones and Mary Walsh of This Hour Has 22 Minutes— being airlifted by helicopter from an outport, like peasants from the boondocks, then flown to the anniversary shindig in the “world-class” city. If the Toronto festival can take a joke after 25 years of trying to prove itself, perhaps it has indeed come of age. E¡3