film feature
October '03


'Hollywood North' returns to form
by Russ Simmons

The “buzz” is back. After enduring a jolt that Sept. 11, 2001 dealt their cinematic party, the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival was largely an introspective affair. The 28th annual festival, which was held Sept. 4-14, 2003, was back to its old self, celebrating cinematic excess.

That celebratory atmosphere at North America’s largest film festival was most evident at the Vanity Fair party, which blocked off one of Toronto’s busiest streets to allow celebrities to make dazzling entrances via a parade of stretch limousines.

The revelry took place at a space on the third floor of the Holt Renfrew department store. Throngs of fans watched their favorites arrive via a giant video screen that was craned in for the event. This allowed those in the back of the crowd to clearly view the arrivals and subsequent vacuous interviews, in addition to a few well-placed ads for the party’s sponsor, BMW.

In a surreal moment worthy of a Fellini flick, the celebrities who arrived at the event lined up along the windows of the third floor of the store to watch the teeming throng of fans below watch them arrive. Even Hitchcock wasn’t able to cram that much voyeurism into Rear Window.

Benecio Del Toro stars in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams.

But those kinds of events attract the festival “moths.” According to famed film critic Andrew Sarris, the moths are attracted to the bright lights and glamour of Toronto, which is often referred to as “Hollywood North.” Yet, in Sarris’ opinion, it is the “moles” that keep festivals like Toronto alive.

Moles are the genuine movie hounds that spend countless hours in dark theatres and then rush to the next queue for another flick. That’s where word-of-mouth begins, setting into motion a chain of events that gains worthy films their coveted buzz.

According to Andréa Grau, manager of Media and Public Relations for the festival, estimating the number of attendees is difficult.

“Please note that it’s not based on people, but admissions,” Grau said. “It is difficult to discern if one person purchases 20 tickets or 20 people each purchase one.”

The dollars generated by the 10-day event have encouraged organizers to flex their muscles in order to ensure that Toronto remains the largest and most prestigious event of its kind. They recently announced the construction of a grand “Festival Centre” to be completed by 2006.

The building will include four theatres with over 1,300 total seats, an additional flexible screening space, an 1,800-foot exhibition hall, education space for workshops and seminars, bars, restaurants, a film reference library, box office and administration offices. Plus, a 41-story condo tower is also a part of the package.

“The Festival Centre is a comprehensive package,” Grau explained. It’s cost? “Over $120 million, Canadian.” (That’s only $88.4 million in U.S. dollars.)

Oh yes, there were movies shown in Toronto. The lineup included 339 feature length films and countless shorts. (Compare that with the approximately 80 films shown at Kansas City’s recent FilmFestKC and Halfway to Hollywood Film Festival, combined.)

The People’s Choice Award, chosen by Toronto ticket-buyers, went to Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi, the story of a blind, roving masseur who is also an expert and deadly swordsman.

The Discovery Award, voted on by the press, was awarded to Canadian filmmaker Arron Woodley’s Rhinoceros Eyes, about an employee of a prop house whose imagination often runs away with him.

The Fipresci Prize, given to an emerging filmmaker, recognized Spanish director Achero Manas’ November, an unusual blend of documentary and dramatic methods.

These award-winners will eventually come to Kansas City screens, but it isn’t unusual for a year or more to pass before such titles finally wind up here in the Midwest.

Toronto’s schedule of films was an eclectic lineup that included numerous foreign selections, documentaries, art films and mainstream Hollywood entries. The star power on hand was impressive, so spotting the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman and Meg Ryan on an elevator became commonplace. (Denzel Washington admitted to yours truly that he enjoys coming to Toronto, but that “I’d still rather be playing football.”)

Among the better films coming out of Toronto included Pieces of April, a touching but often funny low-budget tale of a rebellious young woman (Katie Holmes) who prepares Thanksgiving dinner for her dying, estranged mom.

A harrowing feature called 21 Grams tells the story of three lives that become interconnected due to a deadly hit-and-run accident. Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn give standout performances in this gritty, heart-wrenching drama. Mexican director Alenjandro Gonzales Inarritu (Amores Perros) employs an arresting, non-linear approach that gives the film an eerie tension.

And speaking of tension, Gus Van Sandt’s Elephant is almost unbearably taut. His complex, improvised story of a Colombine-style high school massacre won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and received a polarizing reception at Toronto. It was equally loved and loathed by audiences. Many were put off by its excessive violence while others took exception to its lack of a clear-cut point of view. Others praised its unblinking, detached approach.

But then, controversy is warmly embraced in Toronto. Anything that helps films attain the coveted “buzz” is welcome. After all, in Toronto the buzz equates to “bucks.”



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