Fling Time in a Quiet Town

'8 Mile' Lines and On-the-Job Bondage in Toronto

 TORONTO—The urbanologist Jane Jacobs imagined Toronto as the idyllic future of city life. New York and national film critics see Toronto's no less orderly and inclusive film festival as the future of the fall season. Among Toronto's 265 features, it's possible to sample what just screened at Venice and Telluride, what will show at the New York Film Festival, a selection of Miramax NYFF rejects and other studio-deemed oddball releases, as well as what's opening here this weekend.

Notable among these is Steven Shainberg's Secretary (from Lions Gate) a dark comedy of psychosexual pathology intelligently expanded by Erin Cressida Wilson from a terse account of workplace s&m by Mary Gaitskill. Maggie Gyllenhaal, introduced happily performing her office chores in some sort of modified bondage contraption, delivers a star-making turn as a fragile, sad-faced creature—at once dowdy and seductive—who finds herself in the employ of an exceedingly strange lawyer (generously deadpan James Spader), a stern obsessive-compulsive with a permanent "secretary wanted" sign outside his office.

Gyllenhaal can appear simultaneously worried and sly, charmingly sexy and appealingly ridiculous, as she embarks on a waltz of mutual disinhibition with her irrationally demanding boss. Shainberg paints his case history in rich, overbright colors. But the unnecessarily emphatic ending suggests that Secretary's makers are a bit anxious to demonstrate they've whipped a potentially grotesque, spanks-for-the-memories scenario into the season's most romantic love story—which is, in fact, what they've done.

Sex, files, and dict-a-phone tape: Spader and Gyllenhaal in Secretary
photo: Bruce Birmelin © 2002 Lions Gate Films
Sex, files, and dict-a-phone tape: Spader and Gyllenhaal in Secretary

Two years back, François Ozon premiered his strongest film, Under the Sand, at Toronto; this year, he returned with his worst, the leaden murder-mystery farce 8 Women (Focus Pictures), also opening Friday. For all the tumultuous entrances and flouncing exits, the eight principals—who include Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart, Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, and Virginie Ledoyen—manage maybe three laughs among them. The movie is a game of Clue played with paper dolls and treated with the gravitas of France's César awards—in which a parade of badly dressed stars demonstrate that Oscar has no monopoly on crass self-congratulation. (Huppert wins by default, although connoisseurs of humiliation may appreciate the ye-ye numbers where even Deneuve has to shake it.)

A Toronto world premiere and the weekend's likely box office champ, the fourth remake of the Brit imperialist adventure The Four Feathers (Paramount) is robustly directed by Shekhar Kapur. As with Elizabeth, Kapur proves confidently overwrought in orchestrating historical mumbo jumbo. The proceedings, in which a well-bred coward finds redemption as a freelance British operative in the Sudan, is leavened with the tiniest bit of cultural relativism—in one such scene, village urchins throw stones at British occupiers. Given the militarist bluster and proximity in setting to Black Hawk Down, not to mention the pitting of Christian warriors against Muslim fanatics, The Four Feathers feels both tiresomely old-fashioned and disturbingly topical. (The same is even truer of another Miramax world premiere, The Quiet American, which remakes Graham Greene's prescient novel of U.S. involvement in Indochina with the benefit of an Oscar-friendly performance by Michael Caine.)

Also opening Friday is Walt Disney Pictures' Spirited Away—shown in Toronto as Miyazaki's Spirited Away. This sensational follow-up to the anime master's Princess Mononoke is an Alice in Wonderland story in which a 10-year-old girl finds herself floating between worlds in a sort of a cosmic bathhouse. A very nutty fruitcake, Spirited Away is characterized by wonderfully detailed animation, packed with incident and populated by all manner of comic creatures—frogs in kimono, miniature harpies, bouncing heads, squeaky fuzzballs, and a living blob of yuck (who turns out to be a polluted river god).

With too many industry passes chasing too few press screenings, Toronto generates its own sort of staid hysteria. But the most prized ticket was surely for the premiere of Curtis Hanson's so-called work-in-progress (but otherwise perfectly polished) 8 Mile—graciously identified by the director as "the Eminem movie."

Part Love Me Tender in its pop-star exploitations, part Jazz Singer in its quasi-biographical details (and racial subtext, if not Kim Basinger's extremely modern mammy), and plenty Purple Rain in its celebration of a moody talent overcoming stage fright, 8 Mile tracks Em's rise from Detroit trailer park to victory on the stage of the local rap cathedral. Pleased to treat Detroit as an urban disaster zone, Hanson churns up the grit and surface action to distract from the wafer-thin characterizations and story (a cliché posse's inexplicable battles for the stone-faced star's attention).

8 Mile was scarcely Toronto's lone portrait of the artist. In ascending order of weirdness, the festival also featured Paul Schrader's NYFF-bound Auto Focus (with Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane, blandly tormented star of Hogan's Heroes), Julie Taymor's Frida, and Menno Meyjes's Max. Frida allows co-producer Salma Hayek to frisk, literally, through the role of the most vivacious and bodacious Frida Kahlo imaginable. Taymor, who might well have preferred to stage the pageant as a puppet show, manages a few funny bits of MTV surrealism, but the overall feel is splashy and monotonous.

Straining credulity in another way, Max affords the spectacle of a thoroughly unpleasant 30-year-old corporal named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor) as he vacillates between career choices: Join forces with Munich's artistic avant-garde, as personified by soigné gallery owner Max Rothman (John Cusack)? Or join the Nazi Party and become the worst criminal in world history? Max is not completely brainless, although its premise and dialogue unavoidably suggest the old Lenny Bruce routine in which the future dictator is discovered by a pair of MCA agents. Lions Gate plans a Christmas release.

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