Mix and match

Canuck fest serves up an eclectic package of indies and world preems

TORONTO The Toronto Intl. Film Festival attempts to be all things to all people: Refusing to focus on just one niche, the fest showcases the widest possible selection of world cinema from obscure African titles to star-studded Hollywood blockbusters.

Fest director Piers Handling has resisted the temptation to set up an official competition in Toronto, which has allowed the Canuck event to present an eclectic mix of world preems and pics that have already played other major festivals. The Toronto Festival takes place Sept. 9 to 18.

“Of the big festivals, we’ve always been the one most reticent to enter into the premieres game,” says Toronto Festival associate director of programming Noah Cowan. “First and foremost, we want to make sure we choose good films. We don’t have to have bad new films. The wonderful flexibility in Toronto is that we show a lot of films, so everyone can program their own festival. Why not celebrate the totality of cinema?”

Launch pad

Toronto also provides essentially two opportunities for industryites. It has gradually developed into a key launch-pad for studios and mini-majors to introduce their upscale fall fare and is probably the most efficient way to kick-start a publicity campaign for these companies given that most of the major film writers from across North America are in Toronto for the fest.

The festival also functions as an acquisitions mart: U.S. distribs have been buying more films and spending more money at the event over the past couple of years.

This year’s 24th edition of the Toronto Festival will provide a platform for a dizzying array of. The highest-profile, most commercial offerings will be screened the Gala series, held at tony Roy Thomson Hall. Among the Hollywood entries in the Gala section is the Columbia Pictures release “Jakob the Liar,” a World War II drama directed by Peter Kassovitz and top-lining Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Liev Schreiber and Armin Mueller-Stahl; Wes Craven’s “Music of the Heart,” with Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn and Angela Bassett, and Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico,” with Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte, Sharon Stone and Albert Finney.

Another highly-anticipated world preem Gala is helmer Wayne Wang’s “Anywhere but Here,” starring Susan Sarandon and “Star Wars: Episode One — the Phantom Menace” thesp Natalie Portman in a comic-drama about a family’s difficulties adjusting to life in Beverly Hills.

Suburban blues

There is also a fair bit of buzz surrounding “American Beauty,” the bigscreen directorial debut from Sam Mendes, the hot legit helmer responsible for the recent Broadway revival of “Cabaret” and the steamy Nicole Kidman vehicle “The Blue Room.” “American Beauty,” penned by Alan Ball, is look at suburban angst with actors Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening.

Toronto will also be the site of the North American preem of Toronto auteur Atom Egoyan’s latest feature, “Felicia’s Journey.” The Icon production, which received mixed reviews after its competition screening at Cannes this year, is an adaptation of the novel by William Trevor with Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy in the lead roles. The opening night pic at Toronto, “Felicia’s Journey” is the second consecutive Egoyan film to win that honor (following “The Sweet Hereafter” in 1997).

The Gala lineup also features “Snow Falling on Cedars,” writer-director Scott Hicks’ (“Shine”) adaptation of the bestselling David Guterson novel, and Hungarian helmer Istvan Szabo’s “Sunshine,” an epic slice of Euro history starring Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Deborah Kara Unger, Molly Parker and William Hurt.

Other Galas include “Ice Storm” helmer Ang Lee’s “Ride With the Devil,” with Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire, and pop singer Jewel; Carlos Diegues’ “Orfeu”; and director Fernando Trueba’s Spanish Civil War drama “The Girl of Your Dreams.”

Homegrown Canadian cinema has always been one of the pillars of the Toronto Film Festival, and, in fact, the Canuck pics at the festival often draw a fair amount of heat from American acquisitions executives. Last year, the hottest Canadian titles were opening film “The Red Violin” and Perspective Canada lead item “Last Night,” which were both picked up for U.S. distribution during the fest by Lions Gate Films.

This year, Perspective Canada will be officially kicked off with a screening of “The Five Senses,” the sophomore feature from Toronto-based writer-director Jeremy Podeswa. The ensemble piece garnered strong reaction when it made its bow on the Croisette in the Directors Fortnight this past May thanks to Podeswa’s nuanced comic writing and a strong cast that includes Mary-Louise Parker, Molly Parker, and Daniel MacIvor.

With 19 features and 37 shorts, Perspective Canada also contains a number of recent French-Canadian films, notably Swiss-Canadian director Lea Pool’s well-reviewed Berlin entry “Emporte-Moi,” seasoned Montreal filmmaker Michel Brault’s politicized period piece “Quand Je Serai Parti … Vous Vivrez Encore,” and Quebec director Jean Beaudin’s (“Being at Home With Claude”) psychological drama about a handicapped painter, “Souvenirs Intimes.”

Other Canuck titles on the menu include Vancouver director Mort Ransen’s first effort since “Margaret’s Museum,” the Lynn Redgrave starrer “Touched,” “Pump Up the Volume” helmer Allan Moyle’s return to bigscreen action “New Waterford Girl,” and the Montreal-shot heist thriller “Four Days.”

The fifth edition of the Planet Africa sidebar will showcase 15 features from 10 countries, anchored by the opening film “Harlem Aria.” Helmer William Jennings’ “Harlem Aria” is about a naive 28-year-old from Harlem who dreams of singing Italian opera. The pic stars and was executive produced by Damon Wayans.

“Planet Africa is an extraordinary opportunity for cinema from Africa and the African diaspora to receive the recognition it deserves,” says June Givanni, who programs the section. “This year’s lineup profiles some of the world’s most talented and imaginative filmmakers, and its diversity will appeal to all tastes.”

Other sections at the Toronto Festival include the Director’s Spotlight, which is devoted this year to Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa; the Special Presentations; Masters; Contemporary World Cinema; Discovery; docu sidebar Real to Reel; Dialogues: Talking With Pictures; and late-night off-beat series Midnight Madness.

This year’s edition also will feature “Tribute: The Story of David O.”, an homage to long-time fest programmer David Overbey, who recently died. The National Cinema section will shine the spotlight on the Spanish cinema.

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