“Candy”, “Venus”, “Copying Beethoven”, “Babel”, “Pan’s Labyrinth”
The Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, amidst the humidity and the ever prevailing sounds of cell phones and industry types, who flock here to see what’s hot – or not. Sometimes it’s a film we already expect to be good, while others sneak up on one. With over 200 films here, it’s impossible for any one journalist to see everything, not to mention conduct interviews, with publicists and studios desperately vying for media attention. On Day 2, the trick for me was to fill an already crazy schedule, catch up with an Aussie Oscar nominee and see two films that reflect the cultural diversity of contemporary cinema.
It’s a relief than even a small film such as “Candy” is highlighted. This Australian gem, from theatre director Neil Armfield, is one of six Australian features screening here. Marking the return to his native homeland in many years, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of a heroin addict in a self-destructive relationship with the beautiful Candy [Abbie Cornish] leaves you in no doubt as to why the actor was Oscar nominated for “Brokeback Mountain”. Here Ledger gives a ferociously raw and poignant performance, in this skillful, stunning film that explores the very depths and power of addiction. The film is enhanced by the exquisite Cornish and the monumental work of Geoffrey Rush. Ledger, who lives in New York, flew to Toronto for a few hours to promote the film which North American audiences will see soon. Agreeing to very few interviews and unaccompanied by an entourage or even a personal publicist, Heath spoke to me about the joy of returning to Australia and working on something in his own accent that is very special. In our brief but far reaching conversation, we talked about the impact of Brokeback and why he decided to play The Joker in the new Batman film, “The Dark Knight”. More on that interview soon.
“Venus”, from British director Roger Michell, is beautiful, richly evocative comedy/drama about beauty, aging and the inevitability of death, in this poignant, slice-of-life story revolving around a pair of veteran actors whose routine lives gets turned upside down after they meet a brash teenager. Peter O’Toole has been a force of nature since his Lawrence of Arabia of the early 60s, and for the first time in a decade, O’Toole is back, in a performance that can only be defined as flawless. Starring O’Toole as a once legendary actor now resorting to playing the odd corpse on British TV, his life changes when he meets a feisty and endlessly angry young woman sent by her mother to look after her equally crotchety uncle, deliciously played by the wonderful Leslie Phillips. His infatuation leads to a relationship that is both comic and poignant. O’Toole is in his element here, aided by the glorious work of newcomer Jodie Whittaker. Directed with sensitivity by the always reliable Roger Michel, “Venus” is a masterful, deftly funny and wonderfully engaging film that only the Brits could pull off.
There’s a lot of buzz, predictably, for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow up to “21 Grams”, “Babel”. While we know that Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are the top headliners, this remarkable, complex and very atypical American film is not about star power. The film opens in Morocco where a strained married couple [Pitt and Blanchett] have their holiday shattered when a stray bullet inadvertently hits Blanchett’s Susan. The film then follows the seemingly disparate journeys of deaf mute Japanese schoolgirl Chieko, dealing with growing sexuality and still coming to terms with her mother’s suicide, while in Southern California, a Mexican housekeeper takes the blonde children in her charge to Mexico for her son’s wedding, with disastrous consequences. Babel is a film of raw and emotional power, as it explores the stupidly of humanity and its impact beyond themselves. The film also shows what a simple act, even within the removed poverty of the Moroccan mountains, can impact other lives, seemingly disconnected. Babel is a monumental epic, but even at near 2 and half hours, it never ceases to impress. Director Iñárritu makes an unapologetic film about 21st century immorality and human foibles, casting an often cynical eye, it seems, on American politics. His is an often angry and depressing film about a society in turmoil, and it’s unflinching, raw and consistently gripping throughout. Performances are superb, apart from solid work by Pitt and Blanchett, the film’s strongest performance comes from Japan’s stunning Rinko Kikuchi, whose brave, magnificent performance is ultimately the heart and soul of “Babel”. A very adult film, “Babel” is destined to score mixed reviews for a variety of reasons, and Paramount Vantage has a challenge to market this highly intricate, but compelling, human drama.
There’s also much to admire about “Copying Beethoven”, a partly fictionalised account of Beethoven’s last years, culminating with his triumphant 9th symphony. Beethoven’s life is told through the eyes of aspiring composer Anna Holtz, brought in as a last minute copier to Beethoven who becomes a kind of collaborator. Purists will no doubt scoff at the creation of this fictitious character, and the problem is in the casting of Diane Kruger. An attractive actress, she lacks the depth and emotional fortitude to be pitted against Ed Harris’ towering Beethoven, and their scenes are all his, as she dramatically struggles. Having said that, “Copying Beethoven”, directed with visual flair by Agnieszka Holland, remains an effective look at artistic genius and obsession. Ed Harris plays the tortured artist with emotional range and even sly humour, and his performance is Oscar worthy, yet again. Harris inhabits this most iconic of figures with every pore of his being, and for his magnificent performance alone, “Copying Beethoven” is worth the price of admission.
A hit at Cannes and a likely commercial success when released is Guillermo Del Toro’s sublime and intoxicating fable, “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Set in 1944, in post-Franco Spain, a sweet little girl is taken up to the mountains by her pregnant mother, in order to meet her new stepfather, who is the fascist captain of a military outfit up there, sworn to fight the last of the rebels still hiding out in that territory. Lonely and book-hungry, the young girl finds herself transported into a fantasy world in which she meets creatures who attempt to convince her that she used to be a princess, as she slowly confronts the monsters from within her imagination and her reality. It was no surprise that the press screening for this in Toronto was packed out, and even rarer by a sedate media, was applause at the film’s conclusion. Del Toro has returned to his Devil’s Backbone, taking a historical landscape and fusing it with a world of torment, abhorrent cruelty yet an innocent and rich imagination. A film filled with sequences that are on the one hand, lush and rich, and on the other, intense and violent. Del Toro is a filmmaker who is a rare and committed artist, and Pan’s Labyrinth is not what you necessarily expect. Like the worlds he creates, his Labyrinth is full of cinematic contradictions and extraordinary complexity. It’s that rare beast: an intellectual horror film for grown ups, but its horror is both real and fantastical. Del Toro elicits a memorable performance by young Spanish actress Ivana Baquero, who at 12, gives a detailed and mature performance as Ofelia, while her antagonist, the barbaric captain, is played with visceral power by the brilliant Sergi López. Stunningly shot by Mexico’s brilliant Guillermo Navarro, who also photographed both Hellboy and Devil’s Backbone, and containing some exquisite visuals, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is, quite simply, a masterpiece, an original, bold and unique tale that remains with the viewer way past the film’s closing credits.
Following some brief interviews with the star and director of the Australian black comedy “Suburban Mayhem”, as well as the always insightful and hilarious John Cameron Mitchell talking about “Shortbus”, I also spoke to Billy Connelly who turns up as a zombie in “Fido” and confirmed that he may next play Albert Schweitzer on the big screen. No, not with a Scottish accent, he said.
Finally, as Toronto continues along its hectic course, is Australian director Phillip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire”. It is clear, from that the outset, that Noyce, whose first feature was the at times political Newsfront, has emerged as one of the most mature and skilful filmmakers of his generation. Here, the director breathes new life into the tragedy that was South Africa’s reprehensible Apartheid, seen through the eyes of family man and soccer coach Patrick Chamusso [Derek Luke]. A true story, the film takes an innocent man who has gone out of his way to avoid the political upheavals of his country, and transforms him into a rebel as a result of tragic circumstances. Tim Robbins plays Nic Vos, the anti-terrorist cop who will stop at nothing to protect what he perceives as his homeland. The perfect companion piece to Noyce’s magnificent Quiet American, again the director focuses on complex characters caught in political and social upheavals. More commercial to American audiences than his “Quiet American”, Catch a Fire begins with images that are visually breathtaking, as his characters sing and frolic with simple abandon. Noyce’s use of colour accentuates his initial theme of innocence and simplicity, but that imagery darkens as the narrative slowly and chillingly unfolds. Derek Luke is outstanding here, in a tough role, one which he handles beautifully and with a dramatic power he hasn’t had a chance to explore since “Antwone Fishe”r. Tim Robbins plays the tough cop with a deft subtle power, infusing the character with a quiet humanity that underpins his own journey to self-destruction. Noyce has crafted a film that is both melancholy yet uplifting, breathtaking to the eye, and one can see in Noyce the work of an artist who has come a long way since his early Hollywood career. What a perfect film to end day 3.
In the next two days, I get to spend some 1:1 time with Penelope Cruz, the legendary Costa-Gavras, will check out Morgan Freeman in “10 Items or Less”, be hopefully amused by “For Your Consideration” and even have time to visit the set of “Hairspray”. That and more as my Toronto reports continue.
– Paul Fischer