Film Scouts Diaries

1998 Toronto Film Festival Diaries
Day 2

by Henri Béhar

TORONTO - Friday, September 11

John Waters is in town for two reasons: his "Pecker" premieres tonight (starring Edward Furlong, Martha Plimpton, Christina Ricci and Patricia Hearst, the film comes out next week). He is also part of the "Dialogues: Talking With Pictures" series. Introduced three years ago to commemorate both the 100th anniversary of cinema and the 20th anniversary of the Toronto Festival, the series asks some of the visiting directors to present one film that has affected them or influenced them and follow up with an extensive Q & A with the audience. John Waters has chosen Joseph Losey's "Boom", with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noël Coward; Robert Towne ("Without Limits") went for Zoltan Korda's classic "Four Feathers" which, he often says, inspired David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia"; François Girard ("Red Violin") chose Orson Welles's "Othello", Mika Kaurismaki ("L.A. Without a Map") Samuel Fuller's "Forty Guns", John Boorman ("The General") Michael Powell's "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp"), Arturo Ripstein ("Divine") Luis Bunuel's "Nazarin" and James Ivory ("A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries") Satyajit Ray's "Charulata" and bits of "Gone With the Wind".

Introducing Losey's "Boom", very loosely based on Tennessee Williams' "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore", John Waters talks about the "insane villa" in Sardinia where the entire action takes place, which the Burtons tried to buy after the shoot but for some reason or other couldn't. He recalls going to a party chez Elizabeth Taylor ("Someone on her staff probably invited me") and immediately telling her how much he loved "Boom". " ' But it's a terrible movie!' she said; and I kept saying, 'No, it's great, it's great'. For a while she was pissed off at me, she thought I was stalking her. I finally convinced her that I really did love the movie, and why." Waters pauses. "For some reason or other, however, I was never invited to her party again."

Meanwhile, the rest of us are running from one movie to the other, one press conference to the other, one PR office to the other. Tom Cruise and Billy Crudup are indeed in town - press conference at 2 PM - Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton are in with director Sam Raimi for "A Simple Plan", Meryl Streep is flying in (for a day) for Pat O'Connor's "Dancing at Lughnasa", actors Peter Berg, Christian Slater, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Stern, Jon Favreau and Jeanne Tripplehorn are coming in for Berg directorial debut, "Very Bad Things" (press screening at 11), and Morgan Freeman for HIS second film as a director, "Desert Blue". There are press junkets everywhere - each blocking you for a good five hours, yet all overlapping - , the Four Seasons Hotel is almost running out of meeting rooms and interview suites. Why is a day only 24 hours long?

It's an amazing thing, stardom. At most press conferences, the producer(s) hardly get(s) to speak, the bulk of the questions going to the director and the actors. Not so for the "Without Limits" p.c. The conference room at the Four Seasons was packed to the rafters, and most of the questions went to Tom Cruise. Understandably so, since he rarely meets the press; embarrassingly so, at times, since Robert Towne is one of the most highly respected scriptriters-directors in Hollywood, since Donald Sutherland gives his best performance in years (besides he is a Torontonian), since Billy Crudup is one of the hottest young stars (remember him as one of the two killers in Barry Levinson's "Sleepers"?) and HIS performance is of the kind that redefines an entire career. One suspects young Monica Potter is just one step behind him, career-wise.

But Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. Apparently very close to Robert Towne whose pet project this was (and who did a rewrite on Brian de Palma's "Mission Impossible"), Cruise had for a long time toyed with the idea of playing runner Steve Prefontaine. But then, he says, by the time the project came together, "I realized I was 36 years-old." Asked why he'd wanted to remain associated to the project as producer, he replied, pointing at Towne: "His passion". Throughout the press conference, Cruise proved to be lively, determined, and immensely articulate. The only no-answer happened when he was asked about Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" - he, like all the other participants, is forbidden by contract to even discuss that movie.

Sam Raimi's reputation is that of an oddball - what else would you call the guy who did "Evil Dead 1 & 2", "Darkman" and "Army of Darkness"? Plus he's occasionally been the Coen Brothers' co-writer. His "Quick and the Dead" made us think he was going Hollywood - after all, it starred Sharon Stone and Leonardo Di Caprio. Also also produced by a major studio, "A Simple Plan" proves Raimi has lost nothing of his bite. It's an edge-of-your-seat black comedy, which we immediately called "Treasure of Sierra Madre" meets "Fargo". It takes place in the snow (throughout the movie), It's about greed and deception. It focuses on the relationship between two brothers, one an upstanding member of their small community (Bill Paxton), with a wife (Bridget Fonda) and a child on the way; the other less successful, and actually slightly retarded (Billy Bob Thornton). With their friend Lou, the two brothers, by accident, discover a small airplane downed in the middle of the snow-covered forest. Inside, there's a dead body and four million dollars in cash. Faced with unexpected fortune - which they all need for various reasons - they come up with a plan and an tentative agreement to keep the money. Welcome to betrayal and paranoia.

It's beautifully shot, brilliantly acted (watch Billy Bob Thornton being nominated for the next Oscars) and wonderfully creepy. But if one had but one phrase to sum it up, it would be "incredibly intelligent" - and that, nowadays, is refreshing.

No less a family story, but of a totally different tone, "Dancing at Lughnasa", based on a play by triple Tony-winner Brian Friel, also boast a string of uncanny performances - did I mention that Meryl Streep was heading the cast? But this is an ensemble piece about five sisters, and Streep meshes incredibly well with Catherine McCormack, Brid Brennan, Sophie Thompson and Kathy Burke (Best Actress in Cannes for Gary Oldman's "Nil By Mouth"). As seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old child, the illegitimate son of one of the Mundy sister, it is set in the small village of Ballybog, Ireland, in 1936, as the locals prepare for the annual celebration of the pagan deity Lugh. After decades of missionary work in Africa, the women's brother (Michael Gambon) comes home with a dark, destructive secret, pertaining to his disovering other religions, other rites. A greater freedom within religion? A different approach, certainly. That summer, the fabric of the family comes apart. That summer, the kid's life will forever change.

Directed by Pat O'Connor ("Cal"), "Dancing at Lughnasa" is a joyous, lively, powerful movie. Each sister's character is sharply etched, and, though they all have volatile temperaments, remarkably individualized. If anything, however, if there is to be one star in the film, it is not Meryl Streep or Kathy Burke, it's the incredible bond between the sisters, which can only come for an equally strong bond between the actresses.. And that, Virginia, is what makes it a true ensemble piece

What else is there on the agenda? CBC Television is hosting a cocktail party at the Court House. Okay. After the early gala screening of "Without Limits", there's a bash at the Left Bank for Robert Towne ("Will Tom Cruise be there?" my friend Cheryl asks, nay, drools.). The hot ticket tonight is the CITY-TV party in conjunction with the opening of the festival's Perspective Canada series. Later, after the screening of "Very Bad Things", Polygram has a petite event at The Phoenix. By "petite", we mean two hundred guests and a thousand crashers. "Will Christian Slater be there?" Cheryl asks. Yes he will. Will he jam with the live band? Doubtful.

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