TORONTO 2001: Caught in the Middle; From "Buffalo Soldiers" to "Dog Days"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 09.11.01) -- "This is the best festival in the fucking world," Mexican director Guillermo del Toro ("Chronos," "Mimic") told a tickled-pink Canadian audience at the North American premiere of his new Spanish-language nail-biter "The Devil's Backbone" on Sunday night. "A friend of mine recently told me he had a great success with his film here," continued del Toro. "Then I told him, 'If your film is not a success with that audience, you should burn it.' You guys love movies!" del Toro declared to a round of enthusiastic applause.
Despite del Toro's remarks, the jury is still very much out on the success of this year's Toronto International Film Festival as we head into its midpoint (Tuesday). But it's a bit difficult to judge, because there's so many film festivals happening at once: there's the audience's fest, those eager Canadian cineastes who flocked to del Toro's latest, for example, hanging on his every word and his new feature's every spine-tingling edit; there's the acquisitions executives' fest, who grumble annually about the lack of discoveries; there's the filmmakers' fest, who are welcomed with highly receptive audiences; and then there's the scavenging journalists' fest, who say this year is quiet, with a screening efficiency and orderliness that rivals a Swiss clock, and a lineup of films that ranges from the dour and muddled to the transcendent and skilled.
So far, the best new films at Toronto 2001 seem to have premiered at prior festivals. Venice Best Director winner Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (acquired recently by IFC Films) is one of the more solid new entries. From beginning to end, Cuaron's lively story of two teenage boys and the adult woman they desire -- combined with an evocative snapshot of Mexico's multifaceted landscape -- remains one of the high-points here. Critics also have championed another Venice winner, Laurent Cantet's "Time Out," about a failed businessman who gets caught up in his own lies, still up for U.S. distribution from Celluloid Dreams.
As far as biz buzz, the festival got a heavy injection with the world premiere of Gregor Jordan's darkly comic war movie "Buffalo Soldiers." Jordan's satirical look at American soldiers stationed in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall is a strange combination of "Stripes" and "Apocalypse Now." Jordan admits such diverse influences as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Dr. Strangelove" and "Catch 22."
With a budget of roughly $15 million, according to Jordan, the film was always meant to reach a large audience. "I saw the potential for the movie to work on a number of levels," he told indieWIRE when asked about the film going to a U.S. studio for distribution. "This was always my aim. Originally, I was drawn to the intellectual premises in the book on which it was based, but then I thought you can't just make an intellectual movie that doesn't really entertain, as well, so I thought we needed action and romance and explosions and guns and it needs to be pacey and it needs to be funny."
The launch of "Soldiers" here by producers Good Machine International and Film Four is intriguing, because it is so accessible. Audience consensus on the film is that it's good for what it is: a stylish action-packed black comedy with a strong performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It almost seems out of place here, unless you count it among the studio premieres, of which only a few have gotten praise, namely Antoine Fuqua's "Training Day," the Hughes Brothers' "From Hell" and John Dahl's "Joy Ride." For Indiewood's eager acquisitions executives, "Soldiers" looks as if it's simply out of their league.
Like "Buffalo Soldiers," del Toro's "Devil's Backbone" (also being sold by Good Machine International, by the way) is a glossy, accessible horror-thriller that seems almost too big to fit the shoes of a specialized company. Perhaps only because it's in Spanish, Sony Classics will distribute in the States. Only if "Backbone" had Nicole Kidman (i.e.: "The Others"), it probably would have fallen in the hands of a larger studio.
Meanwhile, a small film like "Dog Days," from this year's Toronto Director's Spotlight filmmaker Ulrich Siedl, found its second screening packed with smaller distributors and brave journalists in search of a discovery, following the film's Venice Jury Prize win. From Austria's new cinema-of-cruelty school (compatriot Michael Haneke's newest "La Pianiste" also screened in the fest's first half), "Dog Days" follows an array of fat and ugly Austrians doing despicable things during the dog days of summer. My favorite: the nut-job at the supermarket who hitches rides from people in the parking lot and then tortures them with trivia and insults. Siedl's film is filled with saggy, sweaty flesh, and corrosive human behavior -- and it is sort of incisive and funny and original, for about an hour (the film lasts two). "Dog Days" represents the other end of the spectrum of the Toronto movie: it's perhaps too esoteric. While an Indiewood distributor might not be able to afford the price tag of "Buffalo Soldiers," they probably couldn't afford to lose money on releasing a film like "Dog Days."
Still, you're going to find fans of "Dog Days" in Toronto. You're going to meet audiences and industry alike, who are a having a ball, seeing other obscure titles like the nearly 4-hour Indian movie, "Lagaan," a Bollywood cricket match extravaganza, German director Maria Speth's quiet Locarno winner "The Days Between," a deliberately paced story about relationships and communication, or the nearly 3-hour Inuit Cannes Camera d'Or winner, "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner," acquired by Lot 47 Films for U.S. distribution and a festival favorite. And then you're going to finds others who are waiting for what's ahead in the next five days, for something in between the big and the small.