Moviehole at the Toronto Film Festival – Part I

As North America’s biggest film festival gets underway for another year, one thing is certain: Toronto gets bigger by the year. More films, from highly mainstream to offbeat little films from various corners of the world, the Toronto International Film Festival has it all, and then some. This year, it is no exception. Prior to the Festival, so that we stressful journalists get a slight breather in Toronto, some films were made available prior to the Festival in preparation for interviews. If these were a good indication of what was to come, Toronto 2003 was in for a strong start.

One of the Festival’s strongest films, and certainly one of the best films of the year, is James Cox’s Wonderland. Set in 1981, the film, in part, deals with the possibility that legendary porn star John Holmes was involved in the bloody Wonderland murders. Fact or fiction? Cox, who also co-wrote the script, hypothesises on the killings by examining various points of view, from Holmes to drug addict David Lind. There is a hint of Rashomon to Cox’s approach, but Wonderland is far more than a murder mystery. The film brilliantly and stylishly captures the decay of 80s America, especially the all-pervading drug culture of post-60s idealism. Wonderland is also a beautiful and compelling love story between Holmes and his teenage lover Dawn Schiller. Compelling, hypnotic, and visually startling, here is a film that goes beyond cinematic conventions and biopic style, but creating a fresh, dazzling and kinetic masterwork that is always fascinating, enthralling and exhilarating. And at the heart of this truly extraordinary film, lay a plethora of magnificent performances, beginning with the ingenious Kilmer. Here, he literally immerses himself into Holmes, depicting many sides of the porn king. Here he is at times vulnerable, romantic, funny and ultimately tragic, and Kilmer nails every aspect of the character to a fault. It’s his best work in years, and worthy of definite Oscar consideration. Bosworth holds her own as Dawn. A genuinely talented actress, there is far more to Kate than the bikini-clad blonde of last year’s Blue Crush as is evidenced by her subtle, emotive and beautifully eloquent performance. Few movie stars of Bosworth’s age have as much depth and skill as she does, and in Wonderland, she gives a masterful and heartfelt performance. Other kudos go to a superb Lisa Kudrow, very much the antithesis of her Friends character, as Holmes’ estranged wife, and Dylan McDermott is magnificent and unrecognisable as Lind.

Smartly written by Cox and Captain Mauzner, and directed with frenetic pace and style by Cox, Wonderland is a memorable, fresh and consistently engaging film, akin to some of the best American films of the seventies. It’s also destined to remind audiences what a major talent exists in Val Kilmer.

Out of Time is another impressive thriller from Carl Franklin, who directed star Denzel Washington on Devil in a Blue Dress. This time around, Washington plays Matt Lee Whitlock a respected chief of police in Florida Banyan Key, who must solve a vicious double homicide before he himself falls under suspicion. Matt Lee has to stay a few steps ahead of his own police force and everyone he’s trusted in order to find out the truth. A film nourish thriller, stylishly crafted by Franklin, and beautifully shot by Theo van de Sande, Out of Time is a throwback to classic crime dramas of yesteryear, films full of varied shades of tone and wonderful characters. Washington is perfectly cast as Whitlock, a flawed anti-hero who must be accountable for his mistakes in more ways than one. The beautiful Sanaa Lathan is superb as a complex woman whose involvement with Whitlock has dangerous consequences. Suspenseful, riveting and glorious to watch, Out of Time is a wonderfully engaging suspense thriller in the classic tradition.

The romantic comedy is given a fresh lease of life with the charmingly sweet and often hilarious Mambo Italiano. In this Canadian romantic comedy, a young gay man moves in with his long-time boyfriend, but he must find a way to keep his sexuality a secret from his Italian immigrant parents who are urging him to settle down with a woman. Despite inevitable comparisons with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mambo Italiano has a charm of its own. Based on a popular play, director Émile Gaudreault, who co-wrote the screenplay with original playwright Steve Galluccio, has opened up the play to give us a breezy, fluid film adaptation, featuring wonderful performances from an energetic cast, headed by the appealing Luke Kirby as Angelo Barberini, the gay Italian man afraid of confronting his bombastic and very Italian parents, played with comic finesse by the great Paul Sorvino and veteran Ginette Reno. Their scenes together are priceless. Beautifully shot on location in Montreal, Mambo Italiano is a film about coming to terms with whom you are, consequences be damned, and the result is a true charmer of a film, a funny, moving and wonderfully entertaining gem.

Breathtaking, emotionally rich, and simply stunning, are the best ways to describe the Australian film, Japanese Story, another of the year’s best, which Samuel Goldwyn has picked up for the US. Set against the background of an Australian desert landscape, so much space and so few people, Sandy Toni Collette], a geologist, and Hiromitsu, [Gotaro Tsunashima], a Japanese businessman, are unwilling partners as the former escorts the latter into the heart of the Australian outback. A strange, powerful love ensues, which has long-lasting consequences, especially for the Australian, a cynical loner who finds love where she least expects it. No film exploring the vastness of the Australian landscape has been as vivid as Japanese Story, which is saying quite a lot, considering Australia’s track record. Here, the sprawling landscape, symbolises the isolation of our two central characters, and is far more than a visual backdrop, but an emotive extension to these unique characters. Superbly shot by veteran cinematographer Ian Baker, this superb and multi-faceted script by Alison Tilson, has been treated with depth and cinematic maturity by Sue Brooks, directing her first feature since 1997’s Road to Nhill.

While the indomitable landscape is a principal character in this film, Toni Collette’s brave, fierce and extraordinary performance is its heart and soul. She is dazzling here, both tough and vulnerable, and fiercely passionate in one of the best performances of the year, and Gotaro Tsunashima is also an unexpected surprise. Both uniquely Australian, yet broadly emotional, Japanese Story is a film that is unexpected in its honesty and human ferocity. A truly spellbinding and luminous masterwork and the perfect film to see before ultimately jetting off to see what the rest of Toronto has to offer.

- PAUL FISCHER IN TORONTO