‘Mile’ only smile for H’wood entries

Deep Focus - Todd McCarthy

TORONTO — For many years what is now the Toronto Intl. Film Festival was officially known as the Toronto Festival of Festivals, and it was as the latter that the 2002 edition succeeded best.

Because of a very fine lineup of films culled from earlier fests in Cannes, Venice and elsewhere, Toronto was able to lay out a very impressive smorgasbord of international titles new to North American audiences in its 27th year.

But Toronto has long relied on Hollywood and the stars the American cinema can deliver for its headline events, and this time Hollywood struck out. With the notable exception of Curtis Hanson’s exuberant “8 Mile,” otherwise known as the Eminem movie, the big ticket titles were pretty much duds.

Most of the interesting English-lingo action came on opening weekend. Phillip Noyce’s nuanced rendition of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” which was turned down by Cannes and that Miramax has been sitting on for a year, went over very well with most observers. There was also unanimous agreement that Michael Caine would be a leading contender for best actor honors at year’s end if the film is released, but the word circulating here is that Miramax topper Harvey Weinstein doesn’t want to bring out anything to compete Oscar wise with “Gangs of New York.”

Another big success was another Cannes reject, Neil Jordan’s “The Good Thief,” a French-set, Euro-financed remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le Flambeur” with a jazzy style and infectious sense of humor all its own.

“8 Mile,” which had a single Sunday night screening at which scalpers were said to be successfully peddling tickets for hundreds of dollars apiece, gave director Hanson, producer Brian Grazer and Universal just what they were looking for: confirmation that Eminem makes the grade in a big way on the big screen, and that their film plays extremely well.

Little to brag about

Otherwise, Hollywood had little to boast about. Jay Russell’s “Tuck Everlasting” is a nice family item but hardly the sort of thing that’s going to be noticed at film festivals; Jim Simpson’s adapted 9/11 stage piece “The Guys” went down pretty well; Peter Kosminsky’s “White Oleander” inspired mixed reactions; and Paul Quinn’s “Never Get Outta the Boat” was the only new U.S. indie to attract any particular attention.

Beyond these, the list was pretty dire, with Shekhar Kapur’s “The Four Feathers,” Brad Silberling’s “Moonlight Mile,” Menno Meyjes’ “Max,” Joel Schumacher’s “Phone Booth,” Michael Hoffman’s “The Emperor’s Club,” Robert Duvall’s “Assassination Tango,” Alan Rudolph’s “The Secret Lives of Dentists” and Matt Dillon’s “City of Ghosts” stirring mostly tepid responses.

‘Together’ well-received

And while many of the foreign titles previously screened at other fests kept cinephiles happy, there were few international discoveries. Chen Kaige’s “Together,” a coming-of-age story set in the context of a classical musical competition, may well prove to be the greatest crowd-pleaser to emerge from Toronto, while buffs were gathering around Belgian helmer-actor Lucas Belvaux’s ambitious “Trilogy,” a nearly six-hour set of a trio of films that look at the same events from three different perspectives and in three distinct genre — styles-thriller, crime drama and romantic comedy.

The story of the festival that wouldn’t go away concerned the difficulty many professionals — critics and industryites — had getting into screenings. Setting off a continuing string of local press stories — and stirring some silly Yank-and-Canadian-bashing sentiments — was an incident at which several American critics, including Roger Ebert and reps from the New York Times, USA Today, New York magazine and Variety, as well as director Norman Jewison, were among some 150 people who couldn’t be accommodated at either of two simultaneous Press & Industry screenings of Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven.”

Screening problems

Yank critics who spoke out about how overcrowding at important screenings was preventing them from doing the job they came here to do were labeled prima donnas, spoiled children and the like. But the public complaints revealed a problem that remained severe throughout the entire festival, as at least a dozen high-profile P&I screenings left more than 100 people shut out even when they had arrived a half-hour or more early. Trying to get into public screenings was even worse.

To its credit, the fest staff worked quickly to remedy the situation by scheduling more P&I screenings, and fest director Piers Handling said addressing the squeeze will be the first thing on the agenda when he convenes his annual fest postmortem. Most obvious solutions would be to emulate Sundance and allow press to enter any screening provided they show up at least 15 minutes in advance, or to reinstitute press-only shows, as a major part of the problem is that there are 2,000 industry badges given out as opposed to 750 press passes.

For fest news around the globe, visit Variety.com/filmfestivals. For information on all film festivals, go to variety.com/filmfest2002.

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