At Toronto festival, political films rule

Borat Sagdiyev, aka actor Sacha Baron Cohen, was delighted to attend the Toronto International Film Festival première of "Borat: Cultural Leanings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." "It is a very great honor to make a visit to the minor nation of Canadas," he proclaimed.

Borat arrived at the screening in a mule cart dragged by four peasant women. This honorable gesture was quickly reciprocated when the projector broke down 10 minutes into the movie. "Our countries are very similar," noted Borat, "and not only because of the projector system." He added, "In Kazakhstan, when projectionist make mistake, we execute him."

Political films of all stripes reigned in Toronto this year. They ranged from the above-mentioned mockumentary about the fact-finding mission in America by the "sixth most popular person in Kazakhstan" – it's one of the most painfully funny films I've ever seen – to the terrific "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing," the documentary by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck about the country group whose singer, Natalie Maines, used a stage to declare, "we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

There was the highly controversial "D.O.A.P," the British television docudrama about the imagined assassination of President Bush in 2007. Using staged footage along with digitized rejiggering of real footage, the emphasis throughout is on the crackdown on American civil liberties that the shooting brings about: Congress passes draconian amendments to the Patriot Act and the Cheney administration, on spurious evidence, contends that the unknown assailant is Syrian. To me it looked like a History Channel docudrama with a ratings-boosting premise.

The acronym for the film, by the way, stands for Death of a President and not, as some have suggested, Dogs on a Plane. (Theatrical rights to the film, which doesn't yet have a US release date, were bought during the festival by Newmarket Pictures. It will air in Britain in October.)

"Bobby," the Emilio Estevez film about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, was also screened, as was "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair," a free-form, partly animated documentary about a real-life Iraqi journalist. US Army intelligence was convinced that he plotted to kill the British prime minister.

Then there was the première of the disappointing, soon-to-be-released "All the King's Men," which stars an arm-waving Sean Penn as Willie Stark, novelist Robert Penn Warren's stand-in for assassinated Louisiana governor Huey Long. Is this Toronto pileup of films about the gunning down of politicians a trend or a coincidence? Only time and box-office returns will tell.

Penn didn't shy away from politics at the press conference for his movie. Chain-smoking despite a smoking ban, he said, "Someone could argue that Bush is a good politician but that depends on how you define politician, and I think the meaning has been lost. It's obvious who the people are in this world who've sacrificed their talents and commitment to their countries – we know who they are, and they're not currently in the White House."

Not to be outdone, Michael Moore told a large audience on Friday that, "Here we are 3-1/2-years [into the war], and we are not able to secure the road from the airport to downtown Baghdad." Moore presented clips from his next film "Sicko," which slams the US healthcare system. He was also supposed to show clips from his work in progress, "The Great '04 Slacker Uprising," a videographic diary of Moore on the 2004 campaign trail, but the sound system went blooey.

The technical breakdowns at both the Moore and Borat movies undeniably give rise to thoughts of a conspiracy.

At the other end of all this political hoo-ha was the standard Toronto festival glitz. Glitter included Penelope Cruz, Russell Crowe, Julie Christie, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Forest Whitaker (who is marvelous as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland"), Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell, and Matt Damon, who arrived for a fundraiser with the African Children's Choir from Uganda and their kilowatt smiles in tow.

The gift lounges are reportedly eerily unpopulated this year, ever since the IRS announced that stars must declare gifts from award shows – which sometimes total thousands of dollars in swag – as taxable income.

Under such stellar circumstances, where Hollywood hype rules (at least for the first half of the festival), I was grateful to see the new Christopher Guest comedy, "For Your Consideration." Starring the usual Guest stock company of, among others, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, and Eugene Levy, it's about what happens when a washed-up character actress (played by Catherine O'Hara) gets wind of a rumor that her performance in the upcoming melodrama "Home For Purim," set in the Deep South, is getting Oscar buzz. The movieland targets in this film are easily vulnerable, but the performers seem to be having a ball acting out their own worst narcissistic fantasies.

It was also a relief to watch a film as blessedly free of contrivance as "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," which also served as the festival's opening night selection. Shot in the Arctic Circle by co-directors Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, who also made the marvelous "Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)," it's a historical expedition drama that seems to reinvent the genre. The title is something of a misnomer, for what gives the film its uniqueness is that, although we are ostensibly watching a film based on the 1912 journals of a Danish explorer among the Inuits, it is told entirely from the vantage point of the Inuit clan. The movie proceeds at such a leisurely, almost trancelike pace that it took me a while to undo all my bad moviegoing habits and get into the rhythm. It was worth it.

So was Pedro Almodovar's "Volver," a minor but affecting drama about the upended lives of a gaggle of women in Madrid. Penelope Cruz is the star but cinéastes took special note of the return of Carmen Maura, who broke with the director years ago after starring in many of his best films.

"Babel," like "Volver," first caused a stir in Cannes. It's another of Alejandro González Iñárritu's multistory epics and, like "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams," it slides in and out of disparate narratives. The effect is sometimes hallucinatory, sometimes annoying. Brad Pitt plays a man whose wife (Cate Blanchett) is shot while they're in Morocco. Pitt looks as determined to win an Oscar as Catherine O'Hara's diva did in "For Your Consideration."

And then there was "Stranger Than Fiction," a Charlie Kaufmanesque conceit starring Will Ferrell as an IRS agent who discovers that the voice he keeps hearing in his head is narrating his own life. It's rather dour and it took me a while to figure out exactly why. It's because, for perhaps the first time in his movie career, Ferrell never strips down to his shorts.

Of such revelations are festivals made.

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