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TORONTO ’06 DAILY DISPATCH: Fest Launch Pad Boosts Fall Films — “Last King,” “Shortbus,” “Volver”

TORONTO '06 DAILY DISPATCH: Fest Launch Pad Boosts Fall Films -- "Last King," "Shortbus," "Volver"

Toronto International Film Festival observers wondering what the hot films are this year need look no further than the cover of local weekly NOW, which last week sported “Shortbus” co-star Sook-Yin Lee on the cover and this week’s boasts “Volver” star Penelope Cruz. While buyers bemoan the lack of hot new festival titles — only a few films seems to be stirring biz buzz so far at the fest — a number of films are using the event as a lauching pad into North American distribution. Among the hottest of those are a few Cannes films, along with a couple of premieres stirring awards buzz. Kevin Macdonald‘s “The Last King of Scotland” has garnered considerable praise, particularly around the performance of Forrest Whitaker. Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Shortbus” and “Volver,” which arrived at the festival with post-Cannes heat, will launch from the event into North American movie theaters.

Whitaker as Amin

Based on Giles Foden‘s acclaimed novel, Kevin Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland” is a composite story set during the dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda and focuses on the fictitious Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy), a seemingly idealistic young Scottish doctor who moves to the African country to work at a rural clinic helping locals. Garrigan meets Amin at a chance roadside auto accident and impresses the leader with a brash decisive act, causing Amin to invite the young Garrigan to serve as his private physician. Amin finds a kindred spirit in Garrigan, who quickly adapts to life in the luxury of Amin’s court and becomes the president’s closest confidant, but also his “white monkey” in the minds of his detractors.

Amin, played by a dazzling Forest Whitaker, becomes increasingly paranoid about internal dissent and unleashes a reign of internal terror in order to stamp out perceived opposition. After expelling the economically powerful Asian population, he continues to lead a decadent lifestyle while the countryside starves. Ironically, he becomes Africa’s most famous leader of the time, bolstering pride in a continent still reeling from the humility of colonialism. Dr. Garrigan’s initial blissful life amidst the president’s circle begins to crumble as the regime buckles by internal pressure and Garrigan’s own self destruction begins to take its toll. Garrigan embarks on an affair with Amin’s neglected third wife (Kerry Washington) who becomes pregnant, which the president discovers, setting off a downward spiral in their once inseparable relationship.

“The presence and character of Amin was there,” explained Macdonald at a Monday press conference in Toronto about the decision to film “The Last King of Scotland” in Uganda. The decision to film there wasn’t greeted with great joy by financiers – it was harder and more expensive.” Macdonald went on to say that despite the challenges, filming in the country – which is nearly void of any production infrastructure – enhanced the spirit of the film in capturing life during Amin’s rule.

McAvoy had initially felt some skepticism when given the script, not wanting to tell another “Heart of Darkness” type story. “My first fear when I first received the script was that it’s going to be another story about a white person in Africa. But [Garrigan] has flaws. He’s not a bad person, but he affects things badly.”

Whitaker immersed himself in studying some of the local Ugandan languages, culture and music in addition to viewing Amin documentaries in order to help him craft his portrait of Amin. “For me, it’s more than just a bunch of facts,” said Whitaker. It’s a feeling.” [Brian Brooks]

The cast and musicians from “Shortbus” perform on Sunday. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE.

On The Bus

At The Phoenix here in Toronto, very late Sunday night, John Cameron Mitchell warned a screaming throng of fans to put down their camera phones because he’d be stage diving into the audience during an upcoming song. He lived up to that promise, lunging off the stage and into the mob. As they passed him along with their raised hands he layed flat…the moment capping a raucous and lively, nearly three-hour concert to celebrate the North American premiere of Mitchell’s “Shortbus” here at the festival. “They are so talented,” noted ThinkFilm head of theatrical distribution, milling around after the concert concluded and morphed into a dance party. (“And attractive,” we added.) Mitchell was joined on stage by a number of the cast as well as others featured in the provocative new film that will open domestically in early October.

A sex therapist who can’t have an orgasm and a gay couple who talk about bringing a third guy into their relationship are among the interconnected group of New Yorkers depicted in “Shortbus,” Mitchell’s follow-up to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” What began as “The Sex Film Project” and an online casting call for actors more than three years ago has resulted in an explicit, artistic and ultimately hopeful new film that stirred buzz in Cannes and ultimately led to a deal with ThinkFilm after a number of other offers.

The film is set in and around a weekly Brooklyn salon, dubbed Shortbus, where sex, music and expression draw a diverse mix of mostly young people, one of whom quips that their world today is “just like the 60s, but with less hope.” The movie is intended to be a “call to arms,” he explained back in Cannes, explaining that many people simply feel powerless in an era in which so much clamping down is taking place. “We couldn’t get Bush out in 2004, so a lot of people put their ideas into their artistic work.” [Eugene Hernandez]

A Return

Despite a back injury after exercising in his Toronto hotel, Pedro Almodovar escorted Penelope Cruz to the Sony Pictures Classics Saturday dinner to toast the company’s many fest films. He did keep the appearance relatively brief to make an appointment with a Toronto Maple Leafs doctor so that he’d be ready for game day (namely Monday’s press junket). Almodovar and Cruz, who maintain such a close relationship that the gay director even told a group of journalists about his fascination with her breasts, are creating a bit of early awards season buzz with their new film. The two spent months together developing her character for the film and Cruz vows she’ll spend even more time working to promote the movie in advance of its upcoming release. In fact, she seems unwilling to tackle another project until this one has run its course.

“There is only one Pedro, for me he is my priority in every way. He writes for women who are 14, 30, 45, 60, 80. He creates characters for women of all ages,” Cruz said back in Cannes, expressing her deep feelings for the director. “For sure my career would not be the same without him, my life would not be the same.”

In Cannes, calling the new film his “deepest return to my roots,” Almodovar went back to La Mancha, where he was born, to explore the story of a group of women. The characters were inspired by women from his own childhood. The film begins on a blustery, sunny day as a group of women in a cemetery clean the gravestones of the dead. Cruz stars as a young woman with a teenaged daughter and an out of work husband, her own mother killed in a tragic fire in a small windy La Mancha town. The dead grandmother, played by Carmen Maura, returns to visit the women in her life as the many secrets of their own family are revealed over the course of the film.

“More than about death itself, the screenplay talks about the rich culture that surrounds death in the region of La Mancha, where I was born,” Almodovar wrote in an entry of his production diary that was published in indieWIRE. “It is about the way (not tragic at all) in which various female characters, of different generations, deal with this culture.”

While the inspiration was from his own life, as Almodovar said back in Cannes, the film is fictional. “My films are all based on fiction,” Almodovar explained, “While I try to insure that the fiction is believable, the fiction is based on real characters, real situations, real things, but the story is pure fiction.” [Eugene Hernandez]

[Get the latest from the Toronto International Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Toronto ’06 section.]

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