Controversy flourishes at Toronto film fest

Michael Moore's latest, along with a spotlight on films from Tel Aviv, brings out the protesters, while others swoon over Clooney.

By , Film critic

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    Michael Moore speaks during a news conference held to promote his new film "Capitalism: A Love Story" at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday.
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The opening night movie at the 34th Toronto International Film Festival was "Creation," featuring Paul Bettany as a seriously distraught Charles Darwin. The festival's opening night party, which immediately followed, featured strolling players, in an Adam and Eve motif, covered in nothing but gray body paint and strategically placed fig leaves.

This absurdist yin-yang effect is a constant at the festival, which runs from Sept. 10-19 and screens more than 300 movies from around the world. The showing of Michael Moore's uneven new documentary, "Capitalism: A Love Story," for example, was preceded by an on-screen array of corporate sponsor plugs, including one from General Motors, one of the film's many targets.

Moore, who strode on stage after the gala screening in his trademark working-class windbreaker and baseball cap, paints a rather halcyon picture of capitalism in America until the advent of Reaganomics. "We, the American people allowed this thing to happen," he said, referring to the current economic meltdown. Later, in a press conference, he dresses all in red to underscore the socialist-communist charges he anticipates from critics. "We bought into this thing of 'Jesus, we could all be rich.' And it was just a big ruse. It's part of the Ponzi scheme. What is the difference between what Bernie Madoff did and what Reaganomics was all about?"

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Trumping Michael Moore in the controversy sweepstakes were the protests and counterprotests surrounding the festival's City to City program, which this year spotlights films from Tel Aviv. Canadian filmmaker John Greyson kicked things off last month by withdrawing his short film from the festival "to protest the showcase of Israeli filmmaking." Festival codirector Cameron Bailey, in an open letter on Aug. 28, said, "The goal of City to City is to take a closer look at global cities through a cinematic lens.... We recognize that Tel Aviv is not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground. As a festival that values debate and the exchange of cultures, we will continue to screen the best films we can find from around the world."

Canadian writer Naomi Klein in an interview with Daily Variety countered that "Tel Aviv is the military center of Israel, a place from which fighter jets departed on their missions to Gaza last December/January."

What the protesters miss is the fact that many of the most celebrated Israeli movies – last year's "Waltzing With Bashir," for example, or, reportedly, "Lebanon," which screened in Toronto after just winning the top prize in Venice – are far from doctrinaire and are among the most riven and politically complex in the world. Then, too, one wonders why no protests were launched in Toronto for films from such egalitarian regimes as, say, Iran or China?

In any case, the dust-up was good theater, with dozens of celebrity attendees, or their sympathizers, taking sides: In this corner, protesting City to City, we have Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Julie Christie, and Viggo Mortensen (who compounded the outrage by sporting a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey in Toronto Maple Leaf country). In the far corner: Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Voight (Fonda's costar in "Coming Home"), Sacha Baron Cohen, and Oprah Winfrey – who was in town because she was executive producer for the film "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" and who created a commotion in the streets bested only by the occasional drive-by appearances of the Jonas Brothers.

I don't want to make the Toronto festival sound like an ideological battlefield. I have, after all, seen 18 movies in six days, most of them no more "controversial" than Drew Barrymore's roller derby romp "Whip It." But it would be remiss before I leave this realm not to mention the appearance of Daniel Ellsberg, now 78, at the screening for a fascinating if hagiographic documentary about him called, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers." Speaking of Vietnam, Ellsberg says in the film: "It is not just that we were on the wrong side. We were the wrong side." In Toronto, in interviews, he speaks of "the striking correspondence between what happened back then and what is happening in Afghanistan right now."

Of course, controversy, real or manufactured, can also help sell tickets. Even "Creation" got into the act. According to its producer, the film has so far failed to find a US distributor because the theory of evolution is too controversial for American audiences. Maybe the lesson to be learned here is that if you're going to make a movie about the struggle between faith and reason, it shouldn't be as dull as "Creation."

And then there is George Clooney, who was in Toronto with two films, the mostly marvelous "Up in the Air," directed by Jason Reitman ("Juno"), where he plays a "career transition consultant" – i.e., he fires people for a living – and "The Men Who Stare at Goats," partially based on fact, where he is part of a top-secret "psychic" military unit in the wake of Vietnam which trains to be invisible, walk through walls, and kill goats by, well, staring at them. Your tax dollars at work, folks.

Clooney, who is often referred to in the local press as "Cary Grant 2.0," is a perennial festival favorite. Asked at a press conference when did he first know he was famous, he answers, "Very early on. My parents told me." Speaking of "Goats," he says, "I have done a couple of war satire films before, 'Batman and Robin' obviously being the first." What does he have in common with the "consultant" in "Up in the Air"? "Well, we're the same height."

Michael Caine was in town in connection with "Harry Brown," where he plays a pensioner who goes on a "Death Wish"-style rampage in his gang-infested neighborhood. (It was filmed in the same south London slum where Caine, and much earlier, Charlie Chaplin grew up.) It's a dreadful movie – who wants to see Michael Caine in a Charles Bronson vehicle? But the good news is that Caine, who seven years ago in Toronto said he had just six more movies left in him – that was about 20 movies ago – now says, "I won't retire. I'll keep going as long as the scripts keep coming and someone will back the movie."

One of the biggest festival hits is Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," which, aside from that mouthful of a title, which Herzog detests, is a cop thriller of surpassing oddness. (In one scene an iguana appears from out of nowhere to sing "Release Me.") It features Nicolas Cage in one of his most outré performances – not since he actually ate a cockroach in "Vampire's Kiss" has he seemed so entertainingly over the top. "I've always been labeled 'that obsessive Teutonic filmmaker,' " says Herzog, obsessively. "But wrong. I've always been hilarious," he adds, grim-faced.

In the obsessive-director category, few can top Terry Gilliam, whom I spoke with about "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," a messy, intermittently brilliant fantasia starring Heath Ledger, who died halfway through filming. (His remaining scenes were filled in by Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell.) "There is a lot of talk about mortality in the film," he says, "and it was all scripted before Heath died."

Toronto is top-heavy with Hollywood movies and red-carpet galas for its first third – The Coen Brothers' soon-to-be released "A Serious Man" was a particular highlight – but it's also a place where you can see films like Bong Joon-ho's "Mother," a psychological thriller from Korea starring its most famous actress, the great Kim Hye-ja, or Ermek Tursunov's "Kelin," a Kazakh epic set high in the mountains, which proves that heavy parkas are no impediment to achieving connubial bliss. The documentary "Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould," directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, is a complicated and revelatory portrait of the late, great Toronto-based pianist. Considering how reclusive Gould was, it's remarkable how much footage of him exists, including home movies here of him cavorting in the Bahamas with island girls. Who knew?

Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," set in a northern German village on the eve of World War I, is a bit like an M. Night Shyamalan film with a PhD. Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist," starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg and vast quantities of fake (at least I hope it's fake) blood, is like a slasher movie with a PhD. No, make that an MA.

As the festival winds down and my eyes grow blearier, I could use a pick-me-up. Why should only movie stars get all the pampering? It's been reported that a local dermatologist and her crack team of technicians have been spotted at the Four Seasons bearing oxygen machines to administer in-room facials to celebrities. I'm looking into changing hotels.

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