Toronto Film Festival: Talent, comedy, crotchety directors

Our critic dives into the pool of 312 movies and finds what's fresh.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    ‘CHE’: Benicio del Toro, in Madrid to promo film, plays Che Guevara in biopic.
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    'Happy-Go-Lucky': Sally Hawkins plays a free-spirited elementary school teacher in director Mike Leigh's movie.
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    Signing in the rain: Viggo Mortensen, in "Good" and "Appaloosa," signed autographs and entertained journalists by playing piano in the press center lobby.
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The Toronto International Film Festival is no country for old men or lazy critics. With 312 movies screening from 64 countries in 10 days, your faithful bleary-eyed cinéaste will end up seeing about a tenth of that total.

The festival is both a one-stop shop for Hollywood's fall lineup and a panorama of movies from far-flung destinations. It's a matchless way to see terrific films that, alas and ever increasingly, may never break out of the festival circuit. It's also a market reminding you yet again that the movie business is a business.

The yin butts up often against the yang in Toronto. For example, Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour-plus biopic "Che," starring Benicio del Toro, received the red carpet treatment. (The carpet seemed especially red to me.) This event was somehow tied in with the "creation" of an "ecofriendly night-life destination."

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Another example: Walking out of a movie about slum conditions in Brazil, Bruno Barretto's "Last Stop 174," one is greeted with the news that Paris Hilton has ordered the festival to press screen only once the documentary about her, "Paris, Not France." (Usually movies are previewed two or three times.) Apparently she feels there is not enough buzz about her – despite a recent poll showing that, in "certain demographics," more people identify the name "Paris" with the woman than with the city.

Considering how often Toronto is used by Hollywood as a movie location, I am always amazed at how star-struck Torontonians can be. They mass for hours in front of the major hotels and bistros. Actually, you don't even need to be a full-fledged star here to get the fan treatment. Sam Neill and Brad Pitt coexist quite nicely in this universe. Neill was in town for his movie "Skin," and held up a sign saying "Remember. Be Kind!" Pitt, here to promote "Burn After Reading," was also promoting his new biodegradable liquid body cleanser.

This is a movie-mad city and, for the duration of the festival, its denizens behave as if Gods Walk Among Us. Poor Colin Firth, who was here with Jessica Biel to promote "Easy Virtue." Especially for women of a certain age, Firth is the great god Pan. Not for the first time at this festival, I was asked by one such lady, "Have you met him? Is he a gentleman?" I assured her he was. (He is.)

One disappointment for me was the no-show – at least I think he was a no-show – of Colin Farrell, who stars with Edward Norton (who showed) in the police corruption drama "Pride and Glory." Last year Farrell befriended a homeless man, took him on a shopping spree, and paid for a year's lodgings. I'd be interested in the second act to that drama.

Viggo Mortensen, you will be relieved to hear, also gives good value. (He has two films here: "Good" and "Appaloosa.") Not only did he entertain journalists by playing piano in the lobby of the press headquarters, but he also stood out in the pouring rain for about 20 minutes signing autographs.

The love fest has occasionally been interrupted by real-world demonstrations in the streets protesting governmental cuts in cultural funding. There has also been free outdoor programming, including a concert by Youssou N'Dour, the Islamic Senegalese Grammy winner who is the subject of the documentary "I Bring What I Love." In the movie he says, "People who believe that music is not closely linked to Islam are making a mistake. We talk to God through music."

It would have been interesting to get N'Dour together with Bill Maher, who was in town to promote his wiseacre, Michael Moore-ish documentary "Religulous," which slams all the major religions and a few of the minor ones. "When I was a kid and got a cavity I had mercury drilled into my teeth," Maher, who was raised as a Roman Catholic, said at a press conference. "Then, when I got older, they drilled it out. You can do the same thing with religion." Considering that Maher was sporting a T-shirt for the floundering New York Yankees, he might wish to revisit the power of prayer.

Spike Lee was in Toronto for his interminable new film "Miracle at St. Anna," about World War II's all-black 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers, and he sported an Obama T-shirt at his press confab. Conflating politics and PR as only he can do, Lee pointed out that what the black soldiers went through is "part of the evolution" that eventually led to Obama's presidential run.

At least Spiky Spike is temperamentally all of a piece with his movies. Mike Leigh, the English director of such humanist classics as "High Hopes" and "Life is Sweet," is as curmudgeonly as they come. At the postscreening Q-and-A for his delightful new film "Happy-Go-Lucky," which stars Sally Hawkins as a free-spirited elementary school teacher, he was in fine fettle. Leigh may look like a bearded, woebegone gnome but don't let that fool you. One audience member asked him to clear up the meaning of an arcane driving-school term used repeatedly in the film. "Google it," he snapped. Another patron wanted to be filled in for the moments she missed while ducking into the ladies' room. Need I print here his response?

In some ways, if one is talking about Richard Linklater, the disconnect between movie and moviemaker is at first glance equally pronounced. Showing up onstage for the public screening of his new film, "Me and Orson Welles," Linklater looked as if he might be the assistant electrician who sauntered in from the wings to check the sound levels. But his best movies are so emotionally generous and unpretentious that it soon becomes clear there is no dissonance here at all. He is, I think, the most gifted American filmmaker of his 40-something generation – "School of Rock" is a comedy classic and the lyrical duo "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" captures the vagaries of young love like no other films. "Me and Orson Welles" is about a teenager, played by Zac Efron, who is cast in Orson Welles's famous 1937 Mercury Theater production of "Julius Caesar," and it's one of the sweetest (and most clear-eyed) valentines to show business ever made.

No film festival would be complete without the requisite crop of the overrated and overbuzzed. For me, that would be Darren Aronofsky's hackneyed "The Wrestler," starring Mickey Rourke as a washed-up grappler, and Danny Boyle's slickly sentimental "Slumdog Millionaire," about a Mumbai (Bombay) street kid who wins big on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Halfway into the Toronto fest it was announced that "The Wrestler" won the top prize at the overlapping Venice film festival. Did the Venice jury ever see, for starters, "Requiem for a Heavyweight" or "Raging Bull" or "Rocky"? After years of being on the skids, it's great to have Rourke, who was all over Toronto, back in action as a lead actor. (One local columnist uncharitably but accurately remarked that Rourke's "mug was beginning to look like his pug.") I am sure, however, that Rourke's real-life story would make a much better scenario than these microwaved leftovers.

Another comeback kid is Debra Winger, who has a small but incendiary role in Jonathan Demme's uneven "Rachel Getting Married" as the mother of the bride. Winger, also, in effect, dropped out of the acting game at the peak of her powers. What Demme's movie demonstrates is that she still has the powers.

The best movie of the festival for me was Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments," a Swedish epic about the emotional odyssey of a woman, played by Maria Heiskanen, whose only respite from the hardship of her life is the box camera she uses to photograph the world outside her own. Troell has been quietly making masterpieces for decades – among others, "The Emigrants," "The New Land," "The Flight of the Eagle," and most notably, "Hamsun." Happily, this film was picked up here for American distribution, so maybe one of filmdom's best-kept secrets will now be a little less of a secret. Troell understands why we go to the movies and why some of us put ourselves through four-movies-a-day at festivals like Toronto. It's for those everlasting moments.

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