Hail Canada

The Toronto Film Festival premieres the good, the bad and the polite of the new fall film season

When fall begins, so does the new movie season, and it all happens at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival, a.k.a. TIFF. This is the biggest, friendliest, most organized film fete in the world, and a launching pad for both Oscar contenders and small low-budget independents, which in the downturn of today’s economic meltdown amounts to the same thing. The crowds seem larger than ever this year as 300,000 people beg, fight and grovel for tickets to see 336 movies in seven days made by everyone from Madonna to Francis Ford Coppola. Politely, of course. This is Canada, not Cannes.

Screenings are held all over this vast city, with no fewer than 20 films per hour in every venue, forging an overcrowded schedule of events that often leaves you only a few minutes between movies. If you catch W.E., the roundly panned new film about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, amateurishly directed by Madonna (my advice is “Don’t!”), you miss the red carpet arrival of Rob Lowe on an elephant. If, shortly after dawn, you wander with bloodshot eyes into an early-morning screening of a controversial Austrian film called Michael, you miss the Robert De Niro press conference. Michael, a demented shocker about a mousy insurance salesman whose quiet, lonely existence evokes sympathy, until the neighbors discover he’s actually a child molester who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in the cellar, outraged viewers for treating a pedophile with normal compassion (his mother loves him and his sister worries that he will spend Christmas alone). A lot of curiosity seekers on the scent of a festival scandal headed for this one but mistakenly ended up in another film from India, also called Michael, about a police officer, destroyed by guilt after killing an innocent child in a crowd of protesters, who ends up illegally selling pirated Bollywood films.

Confusion reigns, but you grab your survival kit of eye drops and noiseless candy with no plastic wrappers, and head for the movies. And the stars themselves are drawn to the chaos as much as the fans. Kathleen Turner, Jane Fonda, Glenn Close, Albert Brooks, Nicolas Cage, Antonio Banderas, Catherine Deneuve, Gina Gershon, Clive Owen, Woody Harrelson, bizarre Tilda Swinton, they’re all here, and new celebrity faces arrive on every plane.

Like George Clooney, who is here as both an actor and director, competing with Brad Pitt to prove who was the most bored and miserable at their news conferences. Pitt premiered his new baseball film Moneyball and continued his campaign to disfigure his good looks. Unshaved with days of whiskers and long greasy hair like a rat’s nest, he was terrific as fast-talking, quick-thinking, risk-taking Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in Moneyball, but a real mess in person. Meanwhile, Clooney said nothing of any importance at his press confab and seemed annoyed with any reporter who expected more. Ironic, isn’t it? Clooney lives the fantasy life of a 13-year-old boy in public, yet gets testy if anyone brings up his personal life. Color him one of the luckiest actors alive.

When all else fails in the new films, which it often does, there is always the thrill of discovering great new performances. Like the one from a sensitive and versatile Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under and soon-to-be Fanny Brice in the forthcoming Broadway revival of Funny Girl).

In Think of Me, Ambrose plays a jobless, poverty-stricken single mother struggling to survive in the phony swirl of Las Vegas. As one of the continuing body blows the working disenfranchised suffer daily in an economic downturn, this is a numbing portrait of a woman at the end of her rope, suddenly faced with an offer to sell her only daughter for $20,000 to an affluent adoptive couple who can give the child a better life. The decision is wrenching, and failure is assured either way. The acting by both mother and child is powerful and emotionally intense, but the centrifugal force of Ambrose left me reeling. She is heartbreaking without a shred of self-pity, and Think of Me is a sad, wrenching but admirably un-sentimental film about the bravery of the human condition that truly deserves a bigger audience.

As I reach the midway point, there is still more to come: a documentary about noisy, ubiquitous Sarah Palin; the latest work by Australia’s distinguished Bruce Beresford called Peace, Love and Understanding with Jane Fonda as a hippie grandmother from the Woodstock generation; and a modern take on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus directed by Ralph Fiennes, replete with cable news, cell phones and Uzies. Of course it wouldn’t be a film festival without sex, masturbation and full-frontal nudity, and Irish hunk Michael Fassbender delivers all three as a pornography-obsessed New York sex addict in the ferociously graphic Shame. So far, the lines for that one have been so long that I couldn’t get in, but I’m still trying.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all at TIFF, there’s always more.