Sound and flurry

'Violin' bows Toronto as stars trek north

TORONTO — There was music in the air at the official kickoff of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival Thursday night, as the 23rd edition of the event made its bow with the North American preem of Francois Girard’s “The Red Violin.”

The Canadian-Italian co-production is an ambitious, lyrical history that follows a unique fiddle over four centuries and several continents, and it was music to the ears of the black-tie opening night crowd at Roy Thomson Hall.

“The Red Violin” is a less somber pick than last year’s opener, the dark, ultra-tragic “The Sweet Hereafter,” and the feeling Thursday was that the film was an ideal selection. It’s far and away the highest-profile Canuck offering of the year, it mirrors the international mandate of the festival and its epic scope makes it a fairly accessible pic that can be appreciated by corporate sponsors and industryites.

“To my mind, it’s an intimate epic, which is perhaps a contradiction in terms,” said festival director Piers Handling. The very long introduction to the soiree included speeches by local politicians, fest managing director Michele Maheux and “Red Violin” producer Nive Fichman. “This festival has shaped my idea of cinema, so it’s an incredible honor to be opening it,” said Fichman.

Though hopes for an imminent end to the Air Canada strike evaporated Thursday (the company and its pilots resumed talks Wednesday), the stars will nonetheless be descending on Toronto over the next week.

Star power

Confirmed fest guests include Tom Cruise, here for the world preem of writer-director Robert Towne’s “Without Limits” (which Cruise produced), Gene Hackman, Anne Bancroft, Jennifer Lopez and Dan Aykroyd. Also making the trip: Christopher Walken for the closing-night screening of the hot DreamWorks animated effort “Antz,” Meryl Streep (“Dancing at Lughnasa”), Billy Zane (“I Woke Up Early the Day I Died”), Michael Caine and Brenda Blethyn (“Little Voice”), Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda and Bill Paxton (“A Simple Plan”), Drew Barrymore (“Home Fries”) and Kiefer Sutherland (“A Soldier’s Sweetheart”).

Helmers will also be all over Toronto in the coming days, with expected appearances from Robert Benigni, John Boorman, John Waters, Bryan Singer, Pat O’Connor, James Ivory, Todd Solondz, Thomas Vinterberg and Julien Temple.

This year’s festival, which runs until Sept. 19, includes 311 films from 53 countries, with 144 world and North American feature premieres. Festival director Handling has noted that there are more first features this year than ever before, with 83 debut pics unspooling in Toronto.

Gala attractions

The highest-profile series at Toronto is the Gala Screenings, which tends to focus on major Hollywood pics and hot foreign fare. Galas include Mika Kaurismaki’s “L.A. Without a Map,” Walter Salles’ prize-winning Brazilian pic “Central Station,” former Kid in the Hall Bruce McCulloch’s directorial debut “Dog Park,” Richard LaGravenese’s “Living Out Loud,” Benoit Jacquot’s Cannes entry “L’Ecole de la Chair” and Denis Villeneuve’s Canadian film “August 32nd on Earth.”

Polygram Filmed Entertainment has more of a presence than usual at the Toronto fest. The Euro film company, which has been put on the auction block by new owner the Seagram Co., is throwing huge parties to promote Shekhar Kapur’s costumer “Elizabeth” and first-time director Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things” starring Christian Slater and Cameron Diaz. PFE topper Michael Kuhn is flying in for a brief one-day visit to promote the company’s slate in Toronto, which also includes the world preem of David Dobkin’s “Clay Pigeons” and writer/director Skip Woods’ “Thursday.”

The industry side of the event kicks off in full force Monday morning with the launch of Symposium, the festival’s parallel conference. This year’s edition opens with a breakfast keynote address from Alliance Communications Corp. CEO Robert Lantos. There is more interest in the talk than usual largely because Lantos is set to ankle his exec post to return to his roots as a full-time feature producer. Other sessions include talks on marketing pics, indie filmmaking, digital technology, creative financing and a look at the business in Europe.

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