Brad Pitt in "Seven Years In Tibet", one of the hot picks at this year's Festival

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Sunday, August 31, 1997

Festival fever

Seven Years in Tibet with Brad Pitt

Hot tips on what to look for at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival

By BRUCE KIRKLAND -- Toronto Sun
 The 22nd Toronto International Film Festival gears up Sept. 4 and spends 10 days convincing the cine world that Toronto is the centre of the universe.
 It is, at least for that period of time. But there are 233 feature films in various programs. Stars from Brad Pitt to Bill Hurt to Kim Basinger will be here. Things get a little confusing. So we offer our annual hot tip sheet to steer you in the right direction. Some are personal selections of mine, others come from inside the festival, others from world sources. Enjoy. Here are the 1997 highlights:
 From the opening night, Toronto filmmaker Atom Egoyan's elegant drama The Sweet Hereafter, to the closing night, French director Jean-Jacques Annaud's lavish Hollywood production Seven Years In Tibet, the festival muscles into focus with big-name and/or big idea cinema.
 The Sweet Hereafter, an intelligent, provocative film about the residents of a small B.C. town devastated by a schoolbus tragedy, is Egoyan's highest artistic accomplishment. Annaud's Seven Years In Tibet has not yet been seen, but he is a gifted filmmaker (The Bear, The Name Of The Rose) who is determined to catapult his star, Brad Pitt, to a higher level. The film tells the controversial real-life story of an Austrian adventurer (and Nazi, we now know) who tutors the young Dalai Lama after escaping from a British POW camp in World War II. The learning goes both ways.
 Other prime galas include: Curtis Hanson's L.A Confidential, a comic film noir set in the 1950s, is as smart and sassy as any Hollywood film this year. Star studded with Russell Crowe and Danny DeVito, but none is better than a revitalized Kim Basinger.
 Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square, from the Henry James novel, is classical filmmaking done to perfection. Iain Softley's The Wings Of The Dove, another James novel transported to the screen, comes highly touted. Insiders say Charles Sturridge's Fairytale: A True Story "captures the magic of the child's world in conflict with the adult world."
 Those are all English-language productions from Canada, the U.S and Britain. U.S. maverick director John Sayles' Men With Guns, in Spanish and four Indian dialects, is being called "a fantastic, sophisticated film" about an Indian rebellion in an unnamed Latin American country.
 French director Agnes Merlet's Artemisia, a bio-pic about a defiant 17th-century female Italian painter, is not only gorgeous to look at but is considered to have one of the best performances by a leading lady (Valentina Cervi) this year.
 Spike Lee heads a group of prominent filmmakers, including Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Jim Jarmusch, with documentaries in the festival. Lee's is 4 Little Girls, a penetrating account of a tragic 1963 Sunday school bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. The film is so dynamic, so powerful, that U.S. authorities have reopened the case.
 Other highlights: Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, a thinly disguised autobiography of his rancid upbringing in London, is as auspicious a directorial debut as any actor has made.
 Michael Winterbottom's Welcome To Sarajevo has been criticized for failing to clearly pick out villains and victims in a nasty war. But that's precisely why this humanistic film has an impact -- it refuses to play petty politics.
 U.S. playwright David Mamet's thriller The Spanish Prisoner, starring Ben Gazzara and Campbell Scott, comes with credentials and hype. So does Antonia Bird's Face, the latest from the Briton who made the controversial Priest.
 American Eric Dignam's Loved is praised for rejuvenating Bill Hurt's career while showing Robin Wright Penn off as an extraordinary actress plumbing "the dark side of love."
 Portuguese veteran Manoel de Oliveira's Journey To The Beginning Of The World is being called a must-see, not only because the film itself is "phenomenal," but Marcello Mastroianni, in one of his final performances, is "fabulous."
 German-Austrian Michael Haneke's Funny Games is being called "very tough, very interesting, very intriguing." No surprise, because this man gave us Benny's Video.
 Cosmos, the exhilarating work of six young Quebec directors, is one of this year's real underground pleasures, a film bursting with energy, smarts and delicious performances.
 Amongst B-movie genre pictures, the surprise is Kari Skogland's Men With Guns (not to be confused with the John Sayles film of the same name). This kick-ass thriller about low-life Toronto scum has all the nerve, verse and testosterone of a major Hollywood flick. Bravo!
 I also like the audacious construct of Vincenzo Natali's Cube, a violent futuristic experiment in human nature. The characters are not well developed, but the idea -- people are trapped like lab rats in a huge mechanical cube -- provokes.
 New films by Toronto's Clement Virgo, The Planet Of Junior Brown, and Vancouver's Mina Shum, Drive, She Said, are eagerly awaited by those of us who loved their superb directorial debuts, Rude and Double Happiness, respectively.
 This sprawling grab bag of films from around the globe is always difficult to get a grip on. Amongst many titles, the following come armed with the highest praise:
 Belgium's Alain Berliner brings Ma Vie En Rose (My Life In Pink), a guaranteed crowd pleaser, while other major films include: Bruno Dumont's The Life Of Jesus (rural French youth problems) and Harmony Korine's disturbing Gummo (U.S. smalltown youth problems). Iran's Jafar Panahi, of White Balloon fame, is back with The Mirror, another gem about a little girl with a real-life dilemma.
 A personal favorite is Richard Kwietniowski's British-Canadian co-production Love And Death On Long Island, a wryly funny drama about sex obsession and fame starring John Hurt in one of his finest performances ever.
 While not in it long enough because of the film's episodic nature, Faye Dunaway is said to steal the show in Spanish director Manuel Lombardero's new version of Stephen Vizinczey's landmark novel, In Praise Of Older Women. The new film intrigues because an earlier Canadian-made version was a landmark opening night gala. The frenzy to get in marked the beginning of the film festival's transformation from cinephile plaything to major cultural event.
 Meanwhile, young Englishman Shane Meadows brings TwentyFourSeven, a "breathtaking" debut according to insiders, who tout Bob Hoskins as "giving his best performance since Mona Lisa." German Katja von Garnier's Bandits, the story of a rock band made up of escaped convicts, is an off-beat sensation "with damn good music!"
 Amongst several strong selections, including Honey And Ashes and Taafe Fanga, the film to see here is the Jamaican entry, Don Letts and Rick Elgood's Dancehall Queen, which bursts with raw reggae sounds from Kingston.
 Back 18 years later is Ira Wohl's sequel to Best Boy, his ground-breaking story of his cousin Philly, who is mentally retarded. The new film, Wohl's first screen venture since the original, is Best Man and is a filmfest must-see.
 No one in this year's lineup of Dialogues filmmakers -- each is asked to present an important film from the past -- excites me more than maverick screenwriter and sometimes director James Toback, whose own Two Girls And A Guy is in the Special Presentations series. Toback, an Orson Welles specialist, plucked F For Fake from the vaults and is guaranteed to give you insights you never thought possible.
 Finally, Emir Kusturica's sprawling but sensational Underground, the Cannes Palme d'Or winner for 1995, is being seen in Toronto. Self-indulgent at times but brilliant and provocative, this film absolutely demands to be seen.
 Also on the Balkans list is Dusan Makavejev's sex-saturated, carnivalesque WR: Mysteries Of The Organism, called the key film of the program and "maybe the most important film to come out of this region."
 Little-known French director Benoit Jacquot is in focus. The Disenchanted (1990) is considered his finest film to date.
 For lovers of the sicko, there's Kirby Dick's Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. For horror camp fans, there's Cindy Sherman's Office Killer. For fans of Asian massacres, there's Takashi Miike's Fudoh: The New Generation. Something for everyone.

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