Fling Time in a Quiet Town


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.

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.

Other stuff to look forward to: Heaven, directed by Tom Tykwer from a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski and his collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, is a surprisingly successful blend—hardly the lumpy melding of Spielberg and Kubrick in A.I. Heaven‘s complex exercise in morality and fate (with Cate Blanchett delivering a haunting performance as a freelance avenging angel) plays and sounds like Kieslowski, but its classical compositions and unhurried deliberation have an Olympian detachment. The melancholy is deepened by the sense of what’s been missing from Euro film culture since Kieslowski’s death.

Another unexpectedly fruitful collaboration, Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth is based on a script by Larry Cohen that, for bold mishegoss, nearly rivals the B-movie meister’s God Told Me To. Only 85 minutes, Phone Booth is like a cross between Sweet Smell of Success and Gladiator—as seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Cohen originally hoped to direct, with Jim Carrey as the fast-talking PR sleazebag trapped in the last operational phone booth on West 53rd Street and compelled to flack for his life before a live TV audience; the Schumacher version, which stars Colin Farrell, is not as humorous as Cohen’s would have been, but his glitzy vision gives the mad chamber drama a zetz of low-rent grandeur.

Rivaling Phone Booth as dark comedy is Carlos Carrera’s Sin of Father Amaro. An ambitious young priest arrives in a corrupt rural parish and goes native—participating in bureaucratic cover-ups and romancing the loveliest virgin in town, under the pretext he’s training her to be a nun. Adapted from a 19th-century Portuguese novel, this anti-clerical extravaganza is the most successful Mexican movie in the nation’s history. Carrera’s gothic exposé is not exactly Luis Buñuel—although it’s filled with vivid characters, mordant wit, and Buñuelian touches, most obviously when a blue satin cloak intended for the Blessed Virgin winds up in Amaro’s personal pleasure chest.

The two best movies I saw in Toronto—Springtime in a Small Town and Far From Heaven—arrived straight from their Venice premieres. Among other things, each uses a classic melodrama as the basis for a confident reinterpretation that effectively revisits the period of the original. Springtime, the first film by Tian Zhuangzhuang in the decade since The Blue Kite, remakes a 1948 Chinese feature to wonderful effect—skewing the Chekhovian triangle that develops between a sickly young landowner, his demurely provocative wife, and the incongruously cheerful doctor who, having fought successfully with the Communists, lands in the couple’s doleful midst.

Springtime in a Quiet Town will be screened in the NYFF (as Springtime in a Small Town); Far From Heaven was apparently never submitted for consideration. From opening crane shot to bittersweet train-station closer, this is Todd Haynes’s biggest gamble and his most fully realized movie since his underground Karen Carpenter Bunraku Superstar. (Here, the living doll is Julianne Moore.) The filmmaker’s passionate acumen is everywhere apparent—like Springtime, it’s sensuously cerebral. As bold in its mise-en-scène as Springtime is delicate, Far From Heaven reworks Douglas Sirk’s 1955 Rock Hudson-Jane Wyman weepie, All That Heaven Allows, into something rich, strange, and provocative.

The press and industry screening for this near-universal favorite was so mobbed that a number of critics, including some of the festival’s biggest boosters, were turned away—with an acrimony that was reported in the local press as well as Variety. When journalists need to queue for an hour to secure a seat, Toronto seems not only a victim of its own success but its desire to remain everything to everyone.

More Voice Coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival:

Memory and Desire
Toronto a Year Later
by Dennis Lim

Body Blows
Looking for Trouble
by Jessica Winter