Circus maximus

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: September 21, 2005 | Publication: Macleans.ca | Author: BRIAN D. JOHNSON
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As the Toronto film festival went star-crazy, the Oscar buzz began

It's over. The circus has left town. For 10 days, the stars converged on Toronto for film's annual September rite. Sidewalks were cordoned off with velvet ropes and red carpets. Hotel entrances were choked with fans and paparazzi. In an orgy of cross-promotion, high-fashion outlets like Chanel and Holt Renfrew hosted lavish soirees co-sponsored by American magazines and studios. It was as if the city was under Hollywood occupation as legions of agents and publicists armed with headsets and BlackBerries coordinated celebrity troop movements. On this, the 30th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 8-17), even TIFF veterans, such as critic Roger Ebert, seemed gobsmacked by how the event had grown -- Ebert devoted an entire column to stars he'd bumped into on the street.

The festival that ate Toronto was inescapable. Day after day, the local papers were blanketed with celebrity interviews and party reportage. Like birdwatchers in the thick of a mass migration, gossip columnists logged the sightings: Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Cameron Diaz, Charlize Theron, Bono, Madonna, Orlando Bloom, Katie Holmes, Kate Hudson, Viggo Mortensen, William Hurt, Richard Gere, Elijah Wood, Jeff Bridges . . . in one column even Jesus, portrayed by Matthew Modine in Mary, was listed in boldface among the celebrity names. (He was unavailable for interviews.)

Then there are the movies. TIFF is second only to Cannes in size, but with this year's slate of films, it may have surpassed Cannes in importance. Premiering work from major directors such as Ang Lee, Stephen Frears, Neil Jordan, Steven Soderbergh and Roman Polanski, it has kick-started a lot of early Oscar buzz.

Potential nominees include a slew of actresses in roles of women battling for respect. Reprising her stage role, Paltrow tries to prove she's a math genius in Proof. In the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line -- this year's Ray -- Reese Witherspoon plays an incorruptible June Carter opposite the malevolent bravado of Joaquin Phoenix (another likely nominee). After dulling down her glamour as a serial killer in Monster, Charlize Theron may be poised to win her second Oscar with North Country -- a true story in which she plays a miner who sues for sexual harassment. Shades of Erin Brockovich.

And Cameron Diaz proves she's more than a ditzy blond in Curtis Hanson's In Her Shoes, which Brockovich writer Susannah Grant adapted from the bestseller. It's a better-than-average chick flick that guys will tolerate because Diaz does a lot of parading around in her underwear, before finding herself as a caregiver in a Florida retirement home. But the term "chick flick" did not go over well in interviews "It's not as if we said, 'Let's go make a movie that only women will want to see,' " protested Diaz. And Toni Collette, who gained 27 pounds to play her homely sister, found the phrase "insulting." In solidarity, a female journalist chimed in with, "Why don't we talk about dick flicks?"

Whatever. Let's just say the festival produced a lot of Oscar-worthy performances by ballsy women -- perhaps none as delightful as grand dame Judi Dench, who shocks wartime London with nude revue in Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson Presents.

The male actors, meanwhile, have been cultivating their feminine side so assiduously that the Oscar race for best actor could turn into a tournament of gays misfits -- most of them in period films. Cillian Murphy pulls out all the stops as a flamboyant transvestite who gets entangled with the IRA in Breakfast on Pluto -- Neil Jordan's second IRA-transvestite film, after The Crying Game. And Philip Seymour Hoffman seems assured of a nomination for his quietly devastating reincarnation of Truman Capote. As the astringent wit who patents the non-fiction novel with 1965's In Cold Blood -- and who will do anything for a story -- Hoffman makes the author seem more ruthless than the killers he writes about. A first feature directed by Bennett Miller, Capote channels the author's silky intelligence in every frame.

In Cold Blood was serialized in The New Yorker, and the same magazine was the source of the E. Annie Proulx story that inspired Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's cowboy romance. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play two Wyoming men who tumble into each other's arms in a tent while herding sheep in the summer of '63.

"You know I ain't queer," says one.

"Me neither," says the other.

And their secret affair lasts for two decades.

With the beefcake grandeur of the Canadian Rockies standing in for Wyoming, Brokeback Mountain could have so easily curdled into homo-on-the-range camp -- some have already dubbed it Bareback Mountain. But with a lean script co-written by Larry McMurtry, director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) crafts an exquisite mood piece, a laconic tragedy that subverts the icon of the Marlboro Man, and finds his inner James Dean. Ledger's performance, knotted with repressed longing, is a heartbreaking tour de force. When I talked to the soft-spoken Australian actor, he said the heated love scenes with Gyllenhaal made him so uncomfortable, he didn't need to fake his character's torment. "When I got home," he said, "I felt really violated -- to the point that your guts are wrenching and you're in pain."

If you were looking for less sensitive males, the festival's hottest action heroes turned up in the most unlikely places -- movies by Canadian directors. David Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Sturla Gunnarsson's Beowulf & Grendel both put a bittersweet spin on classic hero myths. Their respective stars, Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings) and Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera) are both serious sex symbols with avid fan clubs.

At the premiere of Beowulf & Grendel, Butler stepped from his limo into a mob of screaming teenage girls. Beowulf on the red carpet! Clad in a brown leather jacket and ragged blue jeans, the bearded actor worked the crowd like a politician, signing autographs and shaking hands. "He's the hot Scot," says Gunnarsson. "It's very hard these days to find a leading man who's unambiguously masculine, who's charismatic, who knows how to swing a sword, and who can also act."

By Hollywood standards, Beowulf & Grendel is a modest spectacle, a $17-million Canada-Iceland-U.K. co-production. Set in the fifth century, it's based on the first epic work of English literature -- a 10th-century poem inspired by Nordic legend. "It's the prototype for the Western hero myth," says Gunnarsson. "There's Beowulf in every Western you've ever seen: buddy rides into town and slays the evildoers." But his movie strips the story back to the more ambiguous morality of the pagan sagas that inspired it. "We end up subverting the hero myth," says the Toronto director. "Instead of virtue triumphing over evil, you've got a blood feud -- tribal war and ethnic cleansing."

The villains in A History of Violence, a neo-Western about gangsters invading a small town, are less ambiguous. "But it does have political undertones," says Cronenberg. "You have a man who's defending his family and his home against bad guys with guns. And it raises the question of retribution." The hero's brisk, brutal killings tend to draw applause. "Then I add a couple of shots of the aftermath to cut the applause short or at least contaminate it," adds the director, "I want the audience to feel complicit in that, too. Even if the violence is justified, it does horrific things to the human body."

There's something strange going on with English Canadian movies this year. All our major directors have made films set outside the country. Water, Deepa Mehta's gorgeous opening-night gala, takes place in India -- a tale of widows living in enforced chastity at the dawn of Gandhi's rise to power. Cronenberg's film and Atom Egoyan's showbiz mystery, Where the Truth Lies, are both about the violence underpinning the American Dream. And Gunnarsson shot Beowulf & Grendel in his native Iceland, against some of the most exotic landscapes ever filmed. "It was the stormiest autumn in 70 years," he says. "One day we lost eight vehicles to wind, which was gusting at 160 km/h. At that point there are rocks and debris flying through the air. Actors were being blown off their marks. But it was so beautiful."

Shooting a monster movie in an Icelandic gale is a bracing departure for English Canadian films, which tend to inhabit a netherworld of existential angst -- they all start to look like zombie pictures after a while. (By contrast, Quebec movies show such a robust sense of narrative -- from the class-conscious psychodrama of Familia to the brawling psychedelia of C.R.A.Z.Y., which won the prize for best Canadian feature.) Even Clement Virgo's torrid Lie With Me, notorious for its graphic sex, has no real story. The festival's other object of erotic controversy was Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies, which was slapped with an NC-17 rating in the U.S. because of a three-way sex scene. While its producers acted alarmed, they were privately chortling: they could have released the movie unrated, but deliberately went after an NC-17 rating as a gambit to generate publicity after failing to secure a wide release with a major American distributor.

But then, English Canadians bent on broad entertainment migrate to Hollywood. That's what happened to director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and a whole pantheon of comedy stars. Last week, Reitman's Montreal-born son, Jason, captivated the festival with the premiere of his feature debut, Thank You For Smoking. This Swiftian satire, starring Aaron Eckhart as a shameless lobbyist for Big Tobacco, was snapped up by a Hollywood distributor for US$7 million -- a festival record. And it cost just US$6 million to make. Reitman is now worried that everyone will be expecting "this grand oeuvre." But he says, "It's just a movie." Unlike his dad, 27-year-old Jason says he has no ambition to make big-budget studio comedies: "I'd rather be floating a bit under the radar. I want to entertain, but I don't mind saying 'f--k you' to the audience."

Amid the media buzz of stars and deals and glitzy nightlife, it was easy to forget the festival's less glamorous side -- the wealth of documentaries and foreign-language movies. More than half of the 335 films in the TIFF program, which was drawn from 52 countries, were not in English. I'll mention just one, a drama called Paradise Now, directed by Nazareth-born Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad. It's about two young men who receive the call to be suicide bombers. Shot in the Israeli-occupied town of Nablus, and based on scrupulous research, Paradise Now plays as a classical thriller rooted in documentary realism. It's pro-Palestinian yet critical of terrorism, and bristles with warring polemics. At one point during the shoot, extremists kidnapped the crew's location manager. "We were filming in a city under siege," its director told me. "There was shooting while we were shooting."

The movie's suicide bombers are no Hollywood terrorists. They're not fanatics, just decent guys being called to war. Then their hair is cut, their beards are shaved, their bodies are ritually cleansed and wrapped with explosives. And they're dressed in identical black suits, la Reservoir Dogs. Before embarking on their mission, which goes awry, they deliver speeches for martyr videos; when the camera fails, one has to perform a second take as the cameraman idly chews on a sandwich.

At a moment like that, the luxury of stardom, with its Chanel parties, ice sculptures and designer loot bags, seems far, far away. For once, you can't say it's only a movie.