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Moviehole at the TIFF – Part 2

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The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival continues with its usually eclectic array of films. David Koepp’s ”Ghost Town” is a very mainstream offering for Toronto, yet it’s quirky and wry enough to appeal to audiences outside of the commercial box. Ricky Gervais is sublime as rather unhappy dentist Bertram Pincus, a man whose people skills leave much to be desired. When Pincus dies unexpectedly, but is miraculously revived after seven minutes, he wakes up to discover that he now has the annoying ability to see ghosts. Even worse, they all want something from him, particularly Frank Herlihy [Greg Kinnear], who pesters him into breaking up the impending marriage of his widow Gwen [Tea Leoni]. That puts Pincus squarely in the middle of a triangle of sorts. Gervais has this uncanny ability to take very sad and isolated characters, and gives them depth of humanity and a wry comic bent. Ghost Town is partly a romantic comedy, and partly a film about a sad character that discovers that life, ultimately, revolves around more than himself. Koepp’s script is sharp yet emotionally truthful amidst the film’s comic subversiveness. Yet one wonders how effective the film would have been without the ingenious Gervais who skilfully embodies pathos and human isolation better than most Hollywood stars. He is superb and carries the film with authenticity and of course deadpan comic timing. Leoni is also fabulous here, vulnerably, touching and gracefully funny, and the film is beautifully directed by Koepp who avoids a lot of razzle dazzle, but rather focuses on character and the perfect tone. A gloriously entertaining, deliciously funny and genuinely moving film, Ghost Town deserves to be seen and savoured.

Director Jonathan Demme’s work has always been nothing if not original, and his ”Rachel Getting Married”, written by Jenny Lumet [daughter of Sydney] is certainly compelling, due to the film’s central performance by Anne Hathaway. The actress stars as drug addict Kym currently in rehab, who returns to the Buchman family home for the wedding of her sister Rachel [Rosemarie DeWitt], bringing with her a long history of personal crisis and family conflict along. The wedding Party’s abundant cast of friends and relations have gathered for an idyllic weekend of feasting, music and love, but Kym — with her black-comic one-liners and knack for bombshell drama — is a catalyst for long-simmering tensions in the family dynamic. Rachel Getting Married has been shot in a quasi-documentary style, a lot of hand-held camera movements to accentuate the film’s degree of realism. It’s almost too truthful in a way, to such an extent that one wonders what the audience for such a dark and sad tale really is. However, at the film’s heart lay a breathtaking performance by Hathaway who proves what a dynamic and emotionally rich actress she is. Her extraordinary work is likely to be remembered at both the Spirit and Academy Awards, and for my money, she is bound to receive one or both. All the acting is impressive, but Lumet’s script is narratively weak and lacks structure, while delving into family crises and individual self-examination. This is a tough film to sit through, and though at times sharply observed, it doesn’t quite mesh together in cinematic harmony. Yet Hathaway does deliver such a tour-de-force performance that for that reason alone, it may be worth checking out this emotionally draining piece.

Toronto favourite Atom Egoyan returns to the festival with ”Adoration”, another compelling and intelligent work from the gifted filmmaker. Like all of Egoyan’s films, Adoration is no simple work, but a complex myriad of layers that unpeel before one with intoxicating complexity. The film revolves around adolescent Simon, whose parents were killed in a car accident, leaving him to be raised by his uncle [a superb Scott Speedman]. One day at school, his French teacher reads a story about a terrorist, and Simon, who has blamed his father for his parents’ death, suddenly reinvents his life, claiming that his father was in fact a terrorist, who used his pregnant wife to smuggle a bomb on a plane to Israel. The story finds its way onto the Internet and has far reaching ramifications far beyond Simon’s initial intent. Egoyan constantly explores the notion of illusion vs. reality, and this theme is certainly dominant in Adoration. A skilful, richly evocative multi-layered work full of beautifully nuanced performances, Adoration is clearly not a film for mainstream audiences. It’s a very detailed film that requires much of its audience, but then Egoyan has never been one to let his audiences off too easily. This mesmerising film is no exception.

Documentary directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern have directed what may be my favourite Festival offering thus far, ”Every Little Step”. Here is a film that is so emotionally rich, colourful and captivating, that the fact that it is a documentary soon seems irrelevant. The film follows the plight of real-life dancers as they struggle through auditions for the Broadway revival of “A Chorus LineÓ, while also investigating the history of the show and the creative minds behind the original and current incarnations. Directors Del Deo and Stern weave original audio of the late Michael Bennett and the subjects that become the characters for the show, with audition footage of the revival and of course the now iconic music that almost acts as a bridge between and during pivotal moments. The film mirrors the themes of the stage musical in such a deft way, that audiences find themselves rooting for particular actors to get the roles they desperately want. At its heart, Every Little Step is a glorious tribute to the Broadway hoofer, a film about clinging to one’s dreams despite the abundance of odds. Exhilarating, emotive and a joy from beginning to end, Every Little Step has the potential to be a huge, commercial crowd-pleaser.

Saul Dibb’s ”The Duchess” is a ravishingly beautiful costume drama that personifies the elegance of British cinema. The film chronicles the life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, [Keira Knightley] who was both reviled for her extravagant political and personal lives. A vibrant beauty and celebrity of her time, she is trapped in an unhappy triangle with her husband [Ralph Fiennes] and his live-in mistress [Hayley Atwell]. Georgina falls passionately in love with an ambitious young politician, and the affair causes a bitter conflict with her husband and threatens to erupt into a scandal. Stylishly crafted by Saul Dibb, the film features striking performances by its trio of principals, in a film that explores the place of women in 18th century British society. With an evocative score by the prolific Rachel Portman, and stunningly shot by Hungarian cinematographer Gyula Pados, the film is a gorgeous cinematic tapestry, but one that lacks an emotional resonance. Commercial prospects in the US are slim, due to a lack of knowledge about the fact-based subject matter and a general disinterest in costume dramas, one suspects. But it is a ravishingly beautiful work that showcases the performances, rather than delve more deeply into the relationships. The Duchess is a flawed but entertaining work that is ultimately forgettable and simplistic.

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