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Toronto’s large Australian showcase brings rewards after an Aussie-free Venice, reports Helen Barlow, with Mao’s Last Dancer runner up in the Audience Awards, on the eve of its Australian release (October 1, 2009), and two Australian films – The Loved Ones & Daybreakers - get top votes in Midnight Madness section.

The Toronto Festival is a huge event. With more films than you could ever hope to see and too many stars to ever interview, the festival this year was made even bigger, swollen by the number of films desperately seeking US and international distribution.
An incredible 17 of the festival titles came from Australia, while the far smaller Venice program had included no Australian films at all. The Venice program had however managed to include 16 French films in a year when French cinema is known to be in the doldrums and Australian movies are thriving.

"became totally engrossing"

Hence it seemed just that when the Toronto People Choice awards were announced on Saturday, Australian films should figure strongly. While the winner was the US movie, Precious, based on the novel, Push by Sapphire, directed by Lee Daniels, Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer was the runner-up jointly with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs. I had attended the first screening of Mao’s Last Dancer, when the projector had broken down — and potential buyers had been given the chance to leave. Up till that point the film had somewhat laboriously explained the Chinese background of ballet dancer Li Cunxin, who would end up living in Australia, though once it resumed the story of Li’s ascent to stardom in the US became totally engrossing.

The Toronto audiences awarded their prizes in the Midnight Madness section to two Melbourne-shot films: Sean Byrnes’ Australian horror flick, The Loved Ones, was voted best film, while the runner-up was Daybreakers, an Australia-US vampire flick by writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig (The Undead), which stars Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe. In the documentary section Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls was voted best film, while Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which had locals queuing around the block, was the runner-up.

Incredibly no Australian film was awarded the platform of having a press conference. However one was held by the New Zealand-French film, Niki Caro’s The Vintner’s Luck, which had long been rumoured to be a misfire (when it didn’t make it to Cannes), as was born out when it screened in Toronto. It did however have a stellar young cast : French actors Jeremie Renier and Gaspard Ulliel, New Zealand’s Keisha Castle-Hughes . . . and Vera Farmiga, the American actress-of-the-moment who stunningly manages to hold her own alongside George Clooney in Up The Air.

"reunites the real life couple"

Like The Vintner’s Luck, the festival opener, Creation, had been pre-sold to Icon in Australia. It examines Charles Darwin's rationale behind The Origin of Species, and was directed by Jon Amiel, a better talker than he is a director. The film’s major selling point is that it reunites the real life couple of Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly for the first time since they met on A Beautiful Mind. Yet it was so poorly received in Toronto that an industry insider speculated that it could go straight to DVD here.

(One surprising piece of news that came from Village Roadshow during my Festival rounds was that they would send The Hurt Locker to the DVD bins. Thankfully Kathryn Bigelow’s thrilling film, about bomb disposal experts working under extreme pressure in Iraq, will now receive a release around awards time as it is bound to figure strongly.)

As usual Hollywood movies dominated the opening days of this year’s Toronto event, with girlpower making a strong stand. Drew Barrymore proved she can get behind a camera with her impressive directing debut, Whip It, where Juno star Ellen Page plays a teenager who joins a female roller-derby behind her parents’ back. Karyn Kusama’s horror thriller, Jennifer’s Body, written by Diablo Cody was also well received; Jane Campion’s Bright Star wowed the American and Canadian critics, while the consensus is that Atom Egoyan, who in the past has made strong, edgy films with female protagonists (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica) has lost the plot in recent years, and ultimately fails with Chloe, a remake of Anne Fontaine’s 2003 film, Nathalie. Chloe stars Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore as a couple whose marriage is in jeopardy when Moore’s character hires an escort (Amanda Seyfried from Mamma Mia!) to seduce her hubbie. Chloe was the film Neeson was making in Toronto at the time of the sudden death of his wife, Natasha Richardson.

Ricky Gervais also had Toronto locals lining up in droves to see The Invention of Lying, his first feature as director where he gives Jennifer Garner the chance to be kooky and Rob Lowe a pair of very strange glasses. The comedy depicting a world where no-one can lie except for Gervais, starts out well though outstays its welcome once he becomes successful by telling some very big fibs.

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as a man who loves his job of traveling around America firing people, tapped into the zeitgeist of our financially-strapped times, and was probably the best and most popular film in Toronto. It should do well here when it releases on January 7. Reitman, the son of the broadly comedic Ivan, who produced the film, reasserts his talent as a wry social observer and given the success of his previous efforts, Juno and Thank You for Smoking, he doesn’t seem to be able to put a foot wrong.

"a pure cinematic treat"

Meeting two of the most imaginative of directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Terry Gilliam, one after the other, was a pure cinematic treat last Wednesday. The pair share a certain cinematic sensibility, and it’s because they both came to film from animation, says Jeunet. The Frenchman described his new film, Micmacs, as a cross between his previous hits, Amelie and Delicatessen. Indeed he has Dany Boon from Welcome to the Sticks being distorted by his fish-eyed lenses in the same manner as Audrey Tautou in Amelie. A talented comedic actor, Boon hardly says a word for the first twenty minutes of the film and Jeunet likens him to Charlie Chaplin.

Gilliam said that The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus came together far better than he expected, when Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law replaced Heath Ledger, a feat that was made possible by the presence of a magic mirror. He allowed the actors, all friends of Ledger, to come up with their own characters, and he notes Farrell had the toughest job as he had to be mean.

Farrell in fact appears in three festival films: Neil Jordan’s Ondine, a kind of fairy tale, which Jordan likens to The Little Mermaid; but the Irish actor had his toughest role ever in Danis Tanovic’s Triage, where his war gung-ho photographer placed himself in one too many compromised situations, and wound up injured both physically and mentally. Farrell delivers his most mature performance to date in the latter.

"the lead role she deserves"

Also quietly appealing is Cairo Time, where Patricia Clarkson finally gets the lead role she deserves after years of being a strong supporting player. The actress, who has a small role in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and who stars as Evan Rachel Wood’s mother in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, admits she has reached a career height and certainly is at the height of her powers. Cairo Time, directed by Ruba Nadda and voted best Canadian feature at the Festival, has been picked up by Transmission for an Australia release.

Partir (To Leave) has been picked up by Rialto for A & NZ. Directed by Catherine Corsini, the film again attests to the force of Kristin Scott Thomas when acting in French. In our interview the Paris-based British actress admitted she likes to work in France where “there is a greater appreciation for actresses, in fact for women of a certain age”. Her character in the film may be happier than the woman she played in her recent hit, I’ve Loved You So Long, though she is also being tortured by her physician husband (Yvan Attal) who blackmails her into coming back to him after she flees with the man (Sergi Lopez) she loves.

Published September 24, 2009

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Mao's Last Dancer

The Loved Ones

Mic Macs


Daybreakers trailer

Cairo Time

Up in the Air

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