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Fest Dispatch: Toronto Comes Out, with Gays, Terrorists and Historical Injustice

Fest Dispatch: Toronto Comes Out, with Gays, Terrorists and Historical Injustice

Only four days into the Toronto International Film Festival and losers and winners have already been declared, trends have been spotted, and the perennial complaining about the pre-screening official trailers has reached a fever pitch. This year’s “turn off your cell phone” spot, directed by student filmmaker Stephen J. Mavilla, has elicited the occasional death threat and produced quite the opposite effect: industry-ites and journalists appear to be revolting with more cell phone beeps, twitters and jingles than ever before.

As for the premiering losers, the list is considerable: big-ticket items like Cameron Crowe‘s “Elizabethtown” and Terry Gilliam‘s “Tideland” sank like lead balloons. And “No Man’s Land” director Danis Tanovic‘s “L’Enfer”, a Kieslowski-inspired multi-part drama about three women entangled in a web of tortured love, included occasional breaths of the Polish director’s insight and anguish, but ultimately ran out of air.

A scene from “Bubble” by Steven Soderbergh. Image courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The jury’s still undecided about the first installment of Steven Soderbergh‘s Hi-Def DV six-pack, “Bubble”, but the auteur’s stripped-down, highly stylized vision of suburbia is a memorable one: With space-age water towers, a doll factory and eerie Lynchian tableau, it’s easily the most visually rich American film on display so far. And unencumbered by mugging stars (see “Full Frontal”), the film features a nonprofessional cast who are excellent and truthful, as long they’re not acting.

Drawing far more unanimous praise was Ang Lee‘s “Brokeback Mountain”, which continued it’s subtle gallop of accolades ever since premiering in Venice and Telluride last week, winning the top prize in Venice over the weekend. For those who’ve heard rumors about the gay love scenes being trimmed down, it wasn’t apparent from the frenzied, passionate embraces Toronto audiences saw between Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger — the latter of whom delivers a performance of such muted intensity he will no doubt be honored come awards time.

Call it the mainstreaming of gayness: In addition to “Brokeback,” two other well-received films were anchored by effeminate, alluring performances. In Bennett Miller‘s debut “Capote”, Philip Seymour Hoffman first appears as discomfortingly fey as the famously foppish writer, but throughout the course of the film reveals deeper layers of vulnerability and hypocrisy. Hoffman’s Capote is such a refreshing film character precisely for his flaws — he’s a charismatic manipulator and an utterly selfish, opportunistic bastard. More remarkable still is that at the same time, he’s also sad and sympathetic while following the two murderers of his true-crime novel face their grisly death sentence.

And in Neil Jordan‘s “Breakfast on Pluto” — a combo of previous forays “The Crying Game” and “The Butcher Boy” — Irish heartthrob Cillian Murphy applies heavy mascara to his beaming blue eyes in his role as a transvestite named “Kitten” searching for his long lost mother during the 1970s. In the midst of IRA bombings and violent attacks, “Kitten” smiles through his vinyl suits and abject loneliness; it’s a strangely infectious portrait that carries a wacky movie that really shouldn’t work.

The specter of terrorism lies in the background of “Breakfast on Pluto,” but while “Kitten” finds herself an unwitting victim of random political violence and the target of persecution by the cops, two films, “Paradise Now” and “The War Within”, go directly inside the minds of the perpetrators of such attacks. Hany Abu Assad‘s Berlin festival hit “Paradise Now,” being distributed by Warner Independent Pictures, is the far superior of the two: a deeply compassionate look at one man’s desperation in the face of the Israeli occupation. Made from a place of deep conviction, the movie thoroughly lays out the arguments for and against suicide bombing and vividly and humanely captures the culture from which they originate.

A scene from Hany Abu Assad’s “Paradise Now.” Image provided by the Toronto International Film Festival.

While it’s a shame to compare “Paradise Now” to “The War Within,” the films do share eerie similarities in plot. But while Joseph Castelo‘s “War Within” has some good intentions (an early depiction of U.S.-style “extreme rendition” is disturbing), the film’s protagonist is too morose and one-dimensional. In fact, in trying to let us understand the life of a suicide bomber, “The War Within” actually cultivates further stereotypes and irrational fears: the movie’s ultimate message seems to be, ‘avoid praying men in crowded places’. Magnolia Pictures, distributors of such essential films as “Control Room” and “Enron,” have the jump on “Paradise Now” by at least a month in their distribution plans for “The War Within,” but we’d all be better off if the film went away quietly.

Another strong trend that has emerged is the historical exposé: A number of movies are focused on little known political conflicts and injustices of the past and how they comment on the present. From France, Alain Tasma‘s “Oct 17, 1961” is a fast-moving human rights thriller following several characters that culminates with the massacre of an untold number of Algerians on the streets of Paris by city cops on that very day. Similarly, at the heart of Michael Haneke‘s Cannes critical-pleaser “Caché” is a similar (or the same?) incident and its haunting effects on the film’s French protagonists. From Korea, Im Sang-soo‘s masterfully filmed absurdist political thriller “The President’s Last Bang” looks back at the assassination of its corrupt president in 1979 and ends up skewering notions of democracy and the foolhardy nature of power. And from Argentina, Julia Solomonoff‘s powerfully acted debut “Sisters” chronicles two siblings opposing roles in the country’s Dirty War of disappearances and rebellion as told eight years later in a small Texas suburb in 1984.

History, it seems, repeats itself. And Toronto local David Cronenberg‘s “A History of Violence” continues to be one of the most heralded films of the year, here or anywhere. Word is that after the movie’s press and industry screening here was followed by rapturous applause. If only every film was as good, the rest of the festival wouldn’t seem so interminable.

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