TORONTO -- The Toronto International Film Festival is a whirlwind of film screenings, interviews, more screenings and coffee. Lots of coffee.
The experience can be overwhelming, especially for a first-timer like me: 352 films from 61 countries are presented in 10 days. Content and scope runs the gamut. Small foreign films and esoteric documentaries sit next to high-profile studio juggernauts.
Add to that a colony of industry people -- from actors, directors and producers to distributors, publicists and handlers -- and hordes of journalists and film fans, and the effect is both exhilarating and exhausting.
Just looking over the screening schedule can induce fits of panic. How do I choose between Kim Ki-duk's Time and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth? (The latter won due to its strong response at Cannes.) And what about Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, the director's long-awaited follow-up to Requiem for a Dream? (Thankfully, the choice was made for me; I had an interview scheduled during the screenings.)
Two questions dominate virtually every conversation: "What films have you seen?" and "What did you like?"
My answer is John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel. (Keep in mind that I've managed to catch only 14 films in the four days since I arrived here.)
Mitchell's follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a hilarious, often touching and sexually liberated (including graphic un-simulated sex) film about people who dare to be different in post-9/11, pre-blackout New York City. Sure, its unabashedly overt sex scenes are bound to repel some, but Shortbus isn't designed to titillate or, as one critic said after the screening, to challenge those who might be offended. Sex is portrayed as the everyday occurrence that it is.
Mitchell's film is a heartfelt plea for a more tolerant, compassionate world, a theme that seems to be playing out in a number of the festival's films. Will it open in Cincinnati? Not a chance.
(On a side note, the Shortbus screening delivered my favorite celebrity sighting: A clearly enraptured David Cronenberg sat next to me, laughing heartily at a scene in which someone sings into an asshole.)
Arriving with an arm-load of awards from Cannes, Inarritu's wildly ambitious Babel revels in director's signature traits: deftly-woven, overlapping story lines, visceral emotions and a skilled melding of sound and image.
The film's continent-hopping narrative (courtesy of acclaimed screenwriter and longtime Inarritu collaborator Guillermo Arriaga) is set into motion when a vacationing American woman (Cate Blanchett) is struck by a stray bullet in a Morrocan desert, an occurrence that forces her distraught husband (Brad Pitt) to put his trust in the residents of a small mountain village.
We're then whisked away to parts of the globe that have a connection (both vaguely and overtly) to the shooting -- from a lonely Japanese school girl (Rinko Kikuchi) to the American couple's nanny (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican woman who's taking care of the their two children in San Diego.
Long and emotionally fraying, Babel is built to be felt. Inarritu's immersive sound design, unadorned visual style (the intuitive camera work is largely handheld) and elemental physicality (blood, dirt, piss and saliva often mingle together) go a long way toward conveying the film's deep impact.
Inarritu is interested in exploring -- and in many ways tearing down -- borders both literal and psychological. The result is a subtly compelling look at the world today, a place where technology has made communication easier while we remain as culturally divided as ever.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is director Larry Charles' Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The latest creation from British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (best known for his hilarious Ali G), Borat Sagdiyev is a TV journalist from Kazakhstan who documents his trip across the United States in an effort to educate his people about the customs of Americans. An avalanche of riotous, politically incorrect mayhem ensues, including an outrageous interlude with his lone traveling partner, his obese producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), that takes the art of tea-bagging to new heights.
Borat is the one festival film on everyone's lips, and rightfully so. It'll be interesting to see if Cohen can maintain his anonymity after Borat hits theaters next month, as his characters' illusion of authenticity is the source of his genius. Interestingly, Cohen showed up at the film's premiere in full Borat mode, complete with donkey and ubiquitous gray suit. The ghost of Andy Kaufman is alive and well in his ribald antics.
Steven Zaillion's long-simmering adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's politically astute novel All the King's Men features possibly the highest profile of any film at the festival. The cast --Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo and Patricia Clarkson -- is strong, delivering the film's age-old themes of power, corruption and the perils of privilege with nuanced skill. Penn has the big, blustery role as populist Louisiana Gov. Willie Stark, but it's Law as Stark's loyal aide who's the film's saving grace.
Our current political climate and the post-production events at the film's setting (New Orleans) no doubt add relevance to All the King's Men. But it also feels like a prestige piece, conceived and designed as old-school Hollywood entertainment, complete with a swelling James Horner score. It's not a bad film, just a terribly conventional one.
Its press conference was one of the festival's biggest media spectacles, as photographers and autograph-seekers hunkered down outside of the Sutton Place Hotel. Inside, TV cameramen scrambled for the best angle to shoot the cast (all of the aforementioned but Law were present, along with Zaillion and ever-exuberant producer James Carville). The result was the usual mix of semi-relevant questions and uncomfortable silences, made intriguing only by the amount of cigarettes Penn smoked in 20 minutes.
Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland is another film with politics on its mind. Based on Giles Foden's acclaimed book, the story centers on Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), an adventurous young doctor who travels to Uganda to ply his untested skills. A twist of fate finds him face to face with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forrest Whitaker), a charismatic, sometimes menacing man who's so taken with Garrigan that he insists he becomes his personal physician.
Partially based on real events, Macdonald's first wholly fictional feature is propelled by the performances of its two leads. Whitaker is especially effective as the delusional Amin, delivering a lacerating yet subtle portrayal of a man who could easily come off as an over-the-top caricature.
Several years in the making, Tarsem Singh's The Fall was a disappointment, suffering from the same problem as his previous effort, The Cell -- colorfully grandiose images do not make for a compelling narrative.
The same goes for British filmmaker Sean Ellis' Cashback. Visually slick and often entertaining, the film is terribly superficial, offering up more bodacious female bodies than a Playboy DVD and the soft-headed narrative cunning of a Joe Bob Briggs late-night special.
Douglas McGrath's Infamous, perhaps the festival's most curious film on a pure contextual level, is eerily similar to last year's Capote, right down to the basic narrative structure and main characters. Toby Jones' performance as the trailblazing Truman Capote employs a lighter touch than Philip Seymour Hoffman's, but he's similarly convincing and actually looks a lot more like the real man.
On its own, Infamous is an effective, witty look at the creation of Capote's crowning achievement, In Cold Blood. But given the existence of director Bennent Miller's more nuanced version, McGrath's film will likely be relegated to "that other Capote movie" status.
The U.S vs. John Lennon was my lone "public screening," a emboldening communal experience. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's documentary looks at the U.S. government's investigation (under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover and President Nixon) of John Lennon, a man who stood up for his beliefs in a time of war, consequences be damned.
One thing kept going through my mind as I sat there watching the endlessly fascinating archival footage of Lennon: Where are the dissenters of today?
Look for more coverage of the 2006 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL in next week's CityBeat.