TORONTO '99: Hot Dogs, A Shining Jewel and a Spacey Film
by Mark Rabinowitz
Flying into Toronto, I was reminded of one of the many things that makes this my favorite film festival in the world. No, it wasn't the boundless hospitality of Canadians (they're all so damn nice, it can get a little creepy for a typical cynical, distrustful New Yorker), nor was it the mind-boggling selection of 319 films, although that too is a tremendous boon. No, it was something else altogether.
No, the facet of the Toronto International Film Festival that was completely occupying my mind was the hot dogs. Those veggie, chicken, beef (and three kinds of sausage) wonders, split and grilled to perfection on every street corner in the festival environs. No hot water dogs, these, but carefully cooked cylinders, grilled to perfection by the cart's handler, and presented to you on an extra large bun (for an extra large dog). Following this transfer, which to me, is akin to The Lady of the Lake bestowing her sacred trust upon King Arthur, you are invited to slather your meal with any of a dozen or so condiments, including, but not limited to: mustard (hot and Dijon), mayonnaise (!!?), ketchup, olives (black and green), relish, 'kraut, onions, bacon bits (!), cheese and pickles. All this majesty for a mere two Canadian dollars.
Enough about foodstuffs, on to the more important business...films. Friday night gave some attendees the chance to see the most talked-about film of the festival to date, Sam Mendes' DreamWorks film, "American Beauty." (World Premiering Saturday night). At two beyond sold-out press/industry screenings, the film wowed one and all, with producers, journalists and sponsors all walking out of the film using words and phrases such as "brilliant," "beautiful," "stunning," "great," "beautifully shot" and "astounding script." As far as I am concerned, the film is one of the most incisive, poignant, subversive, cutting, clear-thinking, well acted films to be released in years. Kevin Spacey proves what I have been thinking about for some time-he is the preeminent actor of his generation, and will go down in history as one of the greats of all time. His well-deserved Oscar for "The Usual Suspects" was only a peek into the brilliance that lies within. In fact, everyone in this film acts at a level in which they more than hold their own with Spacey. Thora Birch ("Alaska"), in her first semi-adult role is winning as the daughter trapped between parents Spacey and a seriously out-of-touch Annette Bening, while Wes Bently, Chris Cooper and Mena Suvari are all superb in their roles as part of this all-too-human portrait of suburban dysfunction.
Ang Lee's latest film, "Ride With the Devil," has its North American premiere at the fest, and is a radical stylistic departure from his films past ("The Wedding Banquet," "Ice Storm," "Eat Drink, Man Woman"). Performances in the Universal-produced, USA Films release were excellent all-around. Tobey Maguire ("Pleasantville," "Deconstructing Harry") is steadily proving himself to be an extremely talented actor, Skeet Ulrich is no longer condemned to be the "poor relation" of Johnny Depp, and Jeffrey Wright is unrecognizable (for those familiar with "Basquiat") in a superb performance. In what is sure to be a "best newcomer" field day, Jewel puts all of the "she's just some beautiful folkie making movies" talk to rest, giving a perfectly nuanced performance as a Southern gentlelady with a possible bad luck curse on her head. Don't be mistaken, this film takes some thought to digest and may be a hard sell to the general public. However, one attendee at a press and industry screening harkened back to another predicted hard-sell (but wildly successful release) by calling "Devil": "Dances With War." At first look, it may seem an apologist's look at the Civil War, upon further review the film is a microcosmic look at the changing of America's morals and thought patterns in this era. Subtle and thoughtful are the words for this film, and think you must, if you expect to fully digest this piece of work. Check out Ray Pride's review of the film elsewhere in this issue.
One of the most well liked "original indie folks" around is October Films co-founder, Bingham Ray. I ran into him at the fest's HQ in the Park Hyatt hotel, and was curious as to what the former distrib was doing in town, seeing as he was no longer there to buy films. Turns out that Ray is on the Perspective Canada Jury, and he told me that it's given him the chance to actually see the entire spectrum of Canadian offerings at the fest. "I've been coming here for fifteen years," said Ray, "and at best I saw only the few films that I was considering buying. This time I get to see all nineteen of them." Other juries convened in this "non-competitive" fest include the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and the National Film Board Award jury.
Friday night is expected to deliver a few talked about screenings, including Pip Karmel's "Me Myself I," Lynn Ramsay's "Ratcatcher," Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's "Mifune-Dogme 3" and Ilkka Jarvilaturi's, "History is Made at Night." The film stars Bill Pullman, Ir