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Moviehole at the Toronto International Film Festival

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The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival returns with a vengeance with more studio product being screened than ever before From Brad to Keira Knightley, stars shine in abundance, while the usually calm Canadian city is a frenetic jungle of media, personalities, filmmakers and a public on the lookout for a star or two. But ultimately, Toronto remains a haven for cinema, from Hollywood’s mainstream to that odd cinematic jewel, yet to be discovered. Paul Fischer has been covering the Festival for over a decade and continues with his regular report. Already, some great films are ready to be devoured by an eager festival audience.

First up is ”The Lucky Ones”, directed by Neil Burger [The Illusionist], a film that one thinks is about Iraq [yawn] but evolves into something fresh and funny. After suffering an injury during a routine patrol, hardened sergeant TK Poole [Michael Pena] is granted a one-month leave to visit his fiancée, but when an unexpected blackout cancels all flights out of New York, TK agrees to share a ride to Pittsburgh with two similarly stranded servicemen: Cheaver, [Tim Robbins] an older family man who longs to return to his wife in St. Louis, and Colee, [Rachel McAdams] a naive private who’s pinned her hopes on connecting with a dead fellow soldier’s family. What begins as a short trip unexpectedly evolves into a longer journey. Forced to grapple with old relationships, broken hopes and a country divided over the war, TK, Cheaver and Colee discover that home is not quite what they remembered, and that the unlikely companionship they’ve found might be what matters the most. The Lucky Ones is a film that explores family and relationships, sexuality and one’s priorities in a life turned upside down amidst the chaos of war. Yet at the same time, thanks to a razor-sharp script by director Burger and Dirk Wittenborn, this cinematic road trip is not only a truly exquisite character study and a densely thematic piece, but it is surprisingly hilarious, with the humour derived from a realistic sense of character. The Lucky Ones does of course examine the Iraqi war, but never hits you over the head with simplistic political diatribes. More importantly, here is a film that blends and weaves into many facets of human behaviour, and done with humour and emotional honesty. The film’s trio of actors is consistently sublime. Robbins is beautifully understated, while McAdams is a revelation here, breathtakingly and disarmingly funny. Superbly directed by Burger and beautifully shot in a vast array of locations that serve to further heighten the film’s themes, The Lucky Ones is a richly entertaining film and one that works on so many fascinating levels.

British director Mike Leigh returns to Toronto with his latest, joyous offering, ”Happy-Go-Lucky”, featuring a hypnotic performance by the exquisite Sally Hawkins. She stars as Poppy, a primary school teacher from north London whose life, at first glance, seems to be full of complications. It is hard to figure if she is a little crazy and irresponsible or deeply sane and sensible. Either way, everybody falls in love with her for better or for worse, including her highly-strung driving instructor. While we all know Leigh’s process, creating a sense of improvisation, there is no sense of that at all in his work. There is a seamless fluidity and genuine sense of character, in particular in this film, which is both delightfully funny and quirky, yet honest and credibly emotive. Poppy is the perennial optimist, and the film becomes this wonderfully wise look at optimism and how important it is to view the world in an optimistic way. Hawkins’ Poppy is a refreshing cinematic character, which leaps out of the screen and enchants you from the outset, and through the exquisite work of Hawkins, Leigh’s latest film is so beautifully charming. Leigh of course continues to keep us guessing as to what he does next. Every film is a unique journey, and this one is another superb triumph.

One of the most eagerly awaited films of the year is Guy Ritchie’s latest crime caper, ”RocknRolla”, a fast-talking, plot-driven, hilarious stunner of a film that will blow audiences away as long as they pay close attention to the film’s crazy plot. In a nutshell, a Russian mobster orchestrates a crooked land deal, putting millions of dollars up for grabs and attracting all of London’s criminal underworld led by the amoral Lenny Cole [Tom Wilkinson], the ambitious One Two [Gerard Butler] and a crooked, cold, sexy accountant [Thandie Newton]. To try and explain these characters’ connections would take up more space than is possible here, but suffice it to say, the film’s ending, in true Ritchie style, is the ultimate payoff. RocknRolla is very British, and while a major Hollywood studio is releasing it, Ritchie has refused to tone it down, from language to violence. This film shows what a remarkable filmmaker Ritchie is, from the way he audaciously uses editing, as he cuts from character to character and scene to scene. This is a sharp, fast and kinetic work, a film that is a visual feast, and also a masterpiece of dialogue and character. Wilkinson steals the film as the underworld figure that epitomizes manipulation. He is simply magnificent, relishing the character and chewing the scenery at every turn. Butler is droll and charming, while Newton is exquisite as Stella. Full of wonderful villainy, this is cinematic gangsterism as only Ritchie can convey, pulling apart the mythology of the genre and contemporary London. RocknRolla is a stunningly mesmerising and exhilarating entertainment not to be missed.

Directing just his second feature, Ed Harris’ ”Appaloosa” is a classic Western based on the popular novel about two self-appointed US marshals hired to clean up a town run by a murderous rancher [Jeremy Irons]. Harris stars as Virgil Cole, who is teamed up with friend Everett Hitch Viggo Mortensen]. Into Cole’s life comes Allie [Renée Zellweger], an independent woman of sorts, desperate to find a man to protect her from the harshness of the West. Appaloosa is a Western that takes its cues from the likes of Rio Bravo, and the film has a classic Western structure. Yet it takes its time to delineate characters and so with skill. As with the Western of old, Appaloosa is about men and violence, the lawlessness of the late 1800s in post-Civil War America. This film bristles with violence and humanity, and explores the nature of morality in an amoral world. Harris not only directs this fine film with clarity of vision but also delivers another stellar performance, though its Jeremy Irons, as the film’s multi-faceted antagonist, who steals the film. The movie’s one flaw is the miscasting of Zellweger, who seems incapable of doing little more than either pout or smile forcibly in a one-note performance that detracts from the major plot of the film. Beyond that, we have a finely textured, riveting Western that marks a welcome return to a classic American genre.

While American comedian and political satirist may not be as well known outside of the US as we would like, all that is about to change as he embarks on a journey throughout the world – well the Middle East and parts of America – to unravel his own quest about the impact and dangers of organised religion in the spellbinding documentary, ”Religilous”. Director Larry Charles made an impact at Toronto two years ago with his mock documentary, Borat. Charles directs the Maher-produced film but this time it is Maher doing what he does best: conducting wide-ranging interviews in order to find out for himself why religion is so rampant in this country in particular. There are personal interviews with his mother and sister, interviews with religious leaders and politicians, and in all, the result is a film that is both anarchically hilarious and truly fascinating. It not a particularly cinematic film, shot in a raw style so as one truly gets to know Maher’s diverse subjects. The film is audacious and compelling. No group is spared and everyone is crucified in this fascinating, hilarious and provocative film that will lead to copious discussions long after the film’s final credits. A brilliant masterwork, one can hope that Religilous will be seen en masse both in the US and around the world. In these uncertain times, this film is a must.

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