Film Scouts Diaries

1999 Toronto Film Festival Diaries
Diary #2

by Henri Béhar

YOU KNOW YOU ARE IN CANADA WHEN... someone reminds you that Sir Peter Ustinov once called Toronto "New York run by the Swiss"

Toronto - Friday, September 10, 1999

And so, the madness begins. Make that began. The Festival opened last night with hometown cineaste Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, which had already been screened in Cannes. Seen for the second time here, it is, even more than the first time around, a hypnotic pas-de-deux between a pregnant Irish teenager come to England to find her boyfriend and an all-too-smoothly-kind lonely man who turns out to be a serial killer preying on lost souls. Not quite the uplifting, put-on-a-happy-face fare that audiences might have expected as a pre-party festival opener. Great film, though.

The party took place at the giant downtown Toronto stadium called the Sky Dome, whose roof slides open when the weather is fine. It was iffy, so the roof remained closed. A huge place, the Sky Dome, which could have hosted at least 500 more people. It came equipped with a street fair, a Ferris wheel and shooting galleries. Jason Priestley, of Beverly Hills 90210 fame, tried his hand at the shooting gallery but he missed getting the big teddy bear by a couple of inches...

By the way, Jason Priestley now sports a goatee. A sure way of stating that he is no longer just the world's best-known-zipcode's hunk, but an artiste. He's in town, you see, to launch his directorial debut, a documentary on Toronto's rock band Barenaked Ladies' tour in the US. Guess what? It's actually pretty good.

Filmwise, we hit the ground running. Films back to back from 8:30 am till way into the night. So here goes:

Mark Illsley's Happy, Texas, which stars Jeremy Northam, Steve Zahn, Ally Walker, Illeana Douglas, William H. Macy and Ron Liebman is a whimsical comedy of errors that has two ex-convicts escaped from a chain gang posing as a gay couple in the title's sleepy Texas town awaiting for its greatest annual event, the Little Miss Fresh-Squeezed Beauty Pageant. The Ideal Husband's Northam makes the best of the less-than-ideal role of the straight man (we use the word liberally) slash romantic lead, but Steve Zahn as the other convict and Illeana Douglas as a hopelessly out-of-fashion teacher chew up the scenery with wild abandon. Main kudos however go to William H. Macy as the town sheriff undergoing a sexual identity crisis. Great actor, as his work with David Mamet amply proved, but also an incredibly graceful dancer... Don't miss this movie when it comes out.

Fernando Columbo's Havana Quartet is also a comedy of errors, with a touch of deceit. It starts in Madrid where Walter tries to juggle earning a living in a bar, keeping his jazz band together, taking care of both a pregnant girlfriend and a dying grandmother. When granny dies, Walter's world collapses. Going through her things, he finds a video tape and undelivered letters sent by a woman in Cuba who claims to be his long-lost mother. He decides to check it out, off to Havana he goes. He meets his (alleged) mother, his (alleged) half-sister and a Spanish flight attendant who tries to pass off as an airline pilot. It's all a scheme, as we find out in the first two seconds, and as Walter, unexpectedly, makes himself at home in the tropics. It's sort of fun, kitsch at times, but also a bit soft-bellied, despite strong performances by Mirtha Ibarra and Daisy Granados, two of Cuban cinema's major divas - think Maggie Smiths and Joan Plowrights, you won't be too far off the mark.

Pip Karmel's first feature Me Myself I is one answer to a question we've all asked ourselves at some point in our lives: what would have happened if at such a such a juncture, we had taken the other path? Pamela Drury is the epitome of the modern woman. She has a line of work that she enjoys - she's writer - she is independent, she's well-off, she's traveled the world. What's wrong with this picture? Thirteen years ago, she passed on Mr. Right's marriage proposal. What if...? A magical collision propels her into the life she could have had, had she married Robert. Is Pamela cut out for the domestic life? Is everything finally perfect in this parallel life? Think again. Me Myself I is finely etched, funny, fun. It won't sweep you off your feet - but Rachel (Hillary and Jackie) Griffiths's performance will.

Joe the King is actor Frank Whaley's first foray into film writing and directing. It is not quite as autobiographical as Whaley may have lead one to believe - "True, I did, early on, overstate that aspect of it", Whaley admits - it is, nonetheless, a deeply personal film that owes more than a debt to François Truffaut's Antoine-Doinel saga, from 400 Blows onward. It is set in a 1970s working-class neighborhood in upstate New York, it concerns a 14-year old kid (Noah Fleiss) whose life is a disaster area, trapped as he is between an exhausted mother (Karen Young), an alcoholic, abusive father (Val Kilmer), a gently demented Casanova (John Leguizamo) and an awkward guidance counselor (Ethan Hawke). Tightly structured - which is rare in first features - somber at times, electrifying at others, it is worth getting back to when it comes out.

Ride With the Devil is director Ang Lee's take on a rarely dealt-with aspect of the Civil War. As was the case with Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility and Ice Storm, Lee focuses on culture clashes, or more accurately, those junctures where one culture is irrevocably about to take over another culture. More about it tomorrow, as well as about Lasse Hallström's John-Irving-based Cider House Rules. Two "period" pieces about America, both directed by foreign filmmakers, both starring Tobey Maguire.

Now off to private screening of Kevin Spacey's new film, American Beauty, a first feature by renowned Cabaret's stage director Sam Mendes. (A Brit. Yet another take on America by a foreigner. Just thought I'd mention it in passing.)

Double whammy party at CityTV. The first, pretty exclusive, for the launching of Star, a new cable channel modeled on the E! Channel. The second, the annual bash thrown by CityTV to honor the international filmmakers in town and celebrate the kickoff of the Perspective Canada series, which CityTV has sponsored for years.

At the end of the day, the tone is set: for ten days, we'll careen crazily from screening to screening, party to party, alternating between canapés and fast food (Italian sausage on Yonge and Bloor is the best). So we'll go on a diet at the end of the Festival. So what else is new?

Previous Installment

Back to Toronto Film Festival Diaries

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.