Politics and controversy at Toronto Film Festival

Ben Affleck’s Argo was universally hailed as a clear winner at TIFF

There is no other film event that transforms its host city the way Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) does. During the 11-days, the sleepy city of Toronto becomes the thriving epicentre of the film industry, hosting thousands of industry professionals and film fans from all over the world, who come to savour the new offerings of world cinema.

Walking down the streets of downtown Toronto, you are bound to see long lines of film goers snaking around the block, waiting patiently in the scorching heat to see one of the 375 movies screened in the festival or hear the deafening screams of lucky star-spotters as they catch a glimpse of one of the hundreds of attending stars.

Thanks to the large number of premieres, TIFF attracts more  stars than any other festival. They parade the red carpet, shake hands, sign autographs and mingle with the swooning fans. Feeling at ease in Toronto, the celebrities are everywhere: in the bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies and the ubiquitous parties.

But TIFF is not only about stars and parties. Since its inception, 37 years ago, the festival has become one of the best barometers for Oscar contenders. Almost every executive, publicist, critic or reporter in Hollywood descends on Toronto in order to be the first to get a sneak preview the likely champions of the upcoming award season. This year a few contenders have risen above the dizzying foray.

Top of the list is the political thriller Argo, which was universally hailed as the forerunner in next year’s Oscar race.  Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, the film tells the true story of a CIA operative who contrives an audacious plan to smuggle out of Iran 6 US embassy employees, who managed to flee when the embassy was raided by Iranian demonstrators and take refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house.

The movie received a rapturous applause and a standing ovation from the audience. Later, Ben Affleck was joined by his wife Jennifer Garner, his best friend Matt Damon and the rest of the cast to celebrate the success of the film at a glamorous restaurant.

Coincidentally, the morning after Argo’s premiere, Canada announced the closing of its embassy in Tehran, and a day later the American consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo were stormed by angry demonstrators, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador to Libya.

The main competitor for Argo was another socio-political movie, The Master, which has been creating a lot of buzz since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the best director for Paul Thomas Anderson, and co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman shared the best actor prize.

The Master has reportedly sparked hostility from angry Scientologists, who urged its producer Harvey Weinstein to cancel its release. Based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard, the film tells the story of a WWII veteran, who gets manipulated by a charismatic sect leader.

Jennifer Laurence captivating performance at Silver Lining Playback made her a frontrunner at the Oscar’s race

Notorious for his uncanny ability to sense award-worthy projects, Harvey Weinstein offered another yet different potential Oscar contender: the light-hearted Silver Lining Playbook, which was applauded by critics and audiences alike.

Directed by David O’Russell and starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, the dark comedy centres on a bipolar former teacher (Cooper) who is taken under the wing of a widow (Lawrence) as he struggles to fit back in society. The captivating performances of Cooper and Lawrence make them natural frontrunners in the upcoming Oscar race.

Other movies dealing with disabilities that attracted attention were The Sessions, in which Helen Hunt bares all as a sex surrogate therapist who helps a comatose poet lose his virginity.  And Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, in which Marion Cotillard delivers a riveting performance as a whale trainer who finds love after losing her legs in an accident.

Tom Hanks was also in town promoting the highly anticipated Cloud Atlas, six interwoven stories and grand themes of karma and compassion. The film, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski brothers,  didn’t live up the hype, leaving the audience confused and critics divided.

Keira Knightley failed to impress in Anna Karenina

The Brits were here in force too but, unlike the previous few years, their movies didn’t dominate the festival. Keira Knightley, accompanied by director Joe Wright, attended the premiere of Anna Karenina, which benefited from sumptuous production design but was short on character development and performance, leaving critics and audiences unimpressed.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts hit the parties to promote The Impossible, a harrowing story about a family who reunite after being ruptured by the 2003 Christmas tsunami. While Olivia Williams was accompanying her co-stars in Hyde Park On Hudson, Bill Murray and Laura Linney, while promoting the movie about the love story between the American president Franklin D Roosevelt and his distant cousin Margaret Stuckley.

Harry Potter’s Emma Watson also delighted her fans as she marched down the red carpet at the premiere of her new teen movie, Perks of Being A Wallflower, in which she falls in love with an introvert freshman.

But the star who provoked the loudest screams and most attention from fans was Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, who endowed Toronto with her first public appearance since the revelation of her love affair with the director of Snow White and the Huntsman. She arrived in Toronto to attend the premiere of her new movie On The Road.

While stars glittered on red carpet and at glitzy parties, studio executives and other buyers were hunting treasures in the darkness of screening rooms. But it seems that

Helen Hunt bares all in The Sessions

treasures were in short supply this year.

Nancy Utley, the head of Marketing at Fox Searchlight, told me that she had watched 20 movies, but nothing had tickled her fancy, leaving the festival empty handed. Her sentiment was echoed by the other studio executives, such as Stacey Snider from DreamWorks who came looking for new talent. “I was impressed by a Danish director, and the director of Impossible, and the David Geffen documentary,” she told me when I bumped into her in the hotel lobby. The lucky directors will most likely be invited to the studio, which is headed by Steven Spielberg, for a chat.

By contrast, however, the co-chairman of Lionsgate, Rob Friedman, told me that he felt good about the movies that his company had acquired during the festival, including Thanks For Sharing, Much Ado About Nothing and Emperor.

By the second week of the festival, many of Hollywood’s big players have left Toronto, which gradually fades back to normality as the festival begins to wind down.

Humble start for LA British Film Festival

Humble start for LA British Film Festival

Humble start for LA British Film Festival

Husam Asi reports from LA

5 May 2009

Under the slogan “The British are coming”, the LA British Film Festival was inaugurated last night at the Custom Hotel in Los Angeles.

Leila BirchThe inauguration party lacked the glitz and glamour that are usually attached to Hollywood events. Stars and celebrities were conspicuously absent on the red carpet, which resulted in poor turnout of the media. However, the makers of the movies and their cast have attended in force; some flew all the way from the UK at their own expense. “We have just started,” the festival’s executive director, Laura Orr, explained. “We didn’t get support from neither the UK Film Council nor the British Council. We couldn’t afford sponsoring filmmakers, and currently the festival is run by volunteers. We hope the success of the festival this year will prompt bigger sponsors to support us in the subsequent years.”

Over 175 films will be screened at the festival from a wide variety of categories including traditional features, documentaries, animated films, avant-garde, television pilots, LGBT, short films and music videos. The movies are mostly British, but also include a number of American films that won awards in other festivals. “Our goal is to introduce British talent to American talent and the Film industry in LA,” Laura Orr said.

John Schneider and Melissa BacelarThe opening film The Gods of Circumstance, staring John Schneider, Brain Krause, Melissa Bacelar and East-ender actress, Leila Birch, was screened at the Hotel’s outdoor swimming pool, where drinks and hot dogs were served. The film was made in the US by a British director, Justin Golding, for less than $250,000. Speaking to other filmmakers, most the movies in the festival were made for little or no money and without any institutional or public support.

At the end of the week-long festival a gala celebration will be held and awards given out in numerous categories for each country submitting, including Best Short, Best Documentary and Best Feature, all voted by the Los Angeles audiences.

Oscar-nominated shorts are honoured

Oscar-nominated shorts are honoured

Oscar-nominated shorts are honoured

this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts

18 April 2008 Oscar-winner, Academy Governor and event chairman Curtis Hanson

“They’re not just seeing the present. They’re seeing the future,” announced Oscar-winning writer and director Curtis Hanson, as he introduced this year’s Academy screening of the ten Oscar-nominated short films — five live-action and five nominated. A sell-out audience of more than a thousand people filled the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at their Beverly Hills headquarters. With films of up to forty minutes in length, that they might well have called the ‘longs’ rather than the ‘shorts’, the screening — and question and answer session — gave film enthusiasts five hours of entertainment for their money.

The Academy’s governor responsible for short films, Jon Bloom, said the programme was now so popular that the theatrical release of the Oscar-nominated shorts is projected to end up in the top 250 releases at the US box office this year.

The record of recent British success in the short film competitions serves to illustrate Curtis Hanson’s point. Andrea Arnold’s Wasp picked up the live-action short Oscar in 2005 and the following year, her debut feature Red Road was in competition in Cannes. That year saw another British director pick up an Academy Award: in 2006, the Oscar went to Martin McDonagh for Six Shooter. His debut feature, In Bruges, opened this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

British directors Suzie Templeton and Daniel Barber celebrating their Oscar nominationsThis year’s British nominee in the live-action category is Daniel Barber, with his adaptation of the Elmore Leonard short story The Tonto Woman. Commercials director Barber told the audience in LA that his brother had brought him the story, originally written for the New Yorker in the 1960s. “I know it’s unusual for an Englishman to make a Western,” remarked Barber, “But why not?” He explained the importance of rehearsals to his film. Reading through the script with his writer highlighted some changes that needed to be made and reading through with actors helped him refine the script and block the camera. For such a low budget, he said, rehearsals were invaluable.

Barber’s 36 minutes, sombre film is definitely the slickest and most accomplished visually.  It tells the story of a cattle rustler, who befriends the socially outcast wife of a rancher. The wife was kidnapped by Indians shortly after her marriage and lived with them for 11 years before her husband rescued her and forced her to live alone in a remote farmhouse.

Daniel Barber’s other ambitious competition is At Night, a Danish drama about three women, suffering from cancer, who agree to celebrate New Year’s Eve together in the cancer ward. This is the longest short (40 mins), most poignant and grimmest, but well executed. In fact, the mood of the film conjures up images from other Scandinavian masterpieces, notably Bergman’s Persona.

The other shorter ‘shorts’ are lighter and comical. The Substitute, an Italian comedy about a businessman who alleviates his boredom by pretending to be a substitute teacher, causing havoc with his slapstick antics as he gives the student outrageous psychological quizzes; The Mozart of Pickpockets is a cute French comedy about two wannabe pickpockets who take a homeless child under their wing, and — predictably — the child turns to be a master Pickpocket; and Tanghi Argentini, another sharp comedy from Belgium following an office worker who gets last-minute tango lessons from his colleague in order to be an online date.

As a whole package, none of the live action shorts get near masterpiece status, but none is awful either. It will be tough to pick a winner here, though it won’t be a surprise if Barner’s short wins. The animation shorts on the other hand fare much better in terms of quality,  technique and visual aesthetic.

There’s British representation in the animated competition too, with yet another longer short that runs for 30 minutes. Producer Hugh Welchman approached director Suzie Templeton with the idea of animating Prokoviev’s classic children’s story, Peter And The Wolf. Templeton’s stop-motion animation successfully used humour instead of dialogue to invoke a whole range of emotions as the Philarmonia Orchestra played in the background. She told the audience that the music was a treasured part of her childhood and enabled her to talk about things she’d wanted to talk about, including the tensions between the city, country and man’s relationship with the wild.

Another comparably competitive and equally astonishing work, but in a softer mode, is the Russian short My Love, which conjures up the imagination of a romantic young boy in 19th century Russia. The story is told in moving oil paintings as the boy’s dreams explode into phantasmagorical images of fairy tale princesses. It’s a long short that runs over 30 minutes, but its arresting hand-drawn images makes an enthralling experience for art lovers.

The Canadian entry Madame Tutli-Putli is slightly shorter (17 mins), but equally innovative. In it, a woman boards a train with a mountain of luggage and encounters some bizarre characters in her journey. The directors use stop-motion animation and sculptured figures to evoke their nightmarish vision by basing the train passengers in their story on their favourite dead.

The other shorter animations are sharp and clever. I Met The Walrus, Josh Raskin’s Gilliam-inspired illustration of an interview sneaked with John Lennon in a hotel room in 1969; Even Pigeons Go To Heaven sees a French team using computer animation to tell the surreal tale, in which a greedy priest tries to sell an old man a machine that will take him to heaven.

2008 is the 75th year that the Academy is honouring short films and as Curtis Hanson suggested, having British film-makers in both categories can only be positive for the future of the UK industry.

Oscars snub fans, blaming security

Oscars snub fans, blaming security

Oscars snub fans, blaming security

Film fans struggle to get close to Hollywood’s great and good,
reports Jason Korsner

12 February 2008

“It’s the most fun of any of it,” said actor and Academy stalwart Ed Begley Junior as he emerged from the annual Oscar Nominees’ luncheon in Beverly Hills.

Try telling this to film fans who’d come from as far and wide as St Louis Missouri, London and Tokyo to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars only to find out that without warning, for the first time, members of the public had been banned.

In previous years, the Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton hotel has provided the rarest of opportunities for film fans to meet their heroes the casts and crews of the year’s greatest films, stopping off on their way in to be honoured for their work by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

While most of the actors chat to fans and sign autographs, some including last year, the likes of Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio, willingly take fans’ cameras and take photos of themselves with the movie-goers who they happily acknowledge put them on the pedestal that brought them there in the first place.

Disappointed fans, Elmer and Fran Armstrong, from St Louis

“Previously, we’ve even been invited,” said Fran Armstrong, who’d extended her stay from St Louis to come to the event for the fifth year in succession. “They used to say on the radio that it was happening and we should come down.” Her husband Elmer explained that the stars were still very nice, trying to stop off if they could, but this year had not been good for fans. “In the past, it’s been wonderful, but today has been a nightmare. Not fan friendly at all.”

In previous years, in addition to the official press presence inside the hotel’s ballroom, there’s been a pen for unofficial press outside, along with three other areas for fans to gather both in the forecourt and in the lobby. This year, security guards were out in force, escorting anyone off the premises who wasn’t accredited press or hotel guests. Rather than arriving to screams from adoring fans, some of the world’s most heralded celebrities were greeted by little more than quiet murmuring and muted chatter.

Hotel security chief Lynda Simonetti said the Academy had to ensure security for the stars, although in previous years, but LA-based British film-maker Sherlia Aziz explained that this hadn’t ever been a problem in previous years when there’d been a higher terrorist threat. “I’ve never known them be so rude to fans,” she insisted.

Savvy professional autograph hunters, who’d known about the change of heart in advance, beat the ban by checking in to the hotel in order to secure a spot in the tightest of pens, screaming for the attention of the stars as they headed in the opposite direction. But a room at the exclusive Beverly Hilton is beyond the means of most average film fans.

Juno star Ellen Page, signing autographs for hotel guests 

George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Laura Linney (The Savages), Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises) were among the stars who made the effort to ensure that all the hotel guests who’d lined up since before 10am got their photos and autographs. “I’ve got two signed,” said hotel guest and professional autograph hunter Kevin as he brandished two large photos of Juno’s Ellen Page, that he’d printed off the internet.

Japanese film critic Duke Matsumoto had flown in from Tokyo to catch up on the Oscar-nominated movies and photograph the stars for his own snap-book. He was lucky enough not to get escorted off the premises for his crime of not having a hotel room, but like the Armstrongs, he was denied anything other than a view of the back of large men scrambling to get as many photos and posters signed as they could, so that they could recoup their hotel room cost by selling them on ebay.

The handful of security guards whose efforts to keep the adoring fans away from the stars who happily stop for photos could teach the Department of Homeland Security a thing or two. They managed to quell the hopes of fans who’d come from around the world for what’s previously been one of the most informal and best-natured events of the awards-season calendar. Particularly at a time when the three-month-old writers strike has brought the City of Angels to its knees, one might have thought that a boost to morale and studio-fan relationships could have helped to lift spirits somewhat.

Record numbers flock to 51st London Film Festival

Record numbers flock to 51st London Film Festival

Record numbers flock to 51st London Film Festival

Jason Korsner reports on the highlights of this year’s London Film Festival

4 November 2007

The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival has drawn to a close in Leicester Square with a gala screening of the new Wes Anderson film, The Darjeeling Limted — a road-trip, featuring three estranged brothers, crossing India, to find their mother, and themselves. The festival began, more than two weeks earlier, with David Cronenberg’s London-set Russian-gangster-thriller, Eastern Promises. In all, the festival included 185 features and 133 features, from 43 countries — and in a large number of cases, directors, producers and cast-members attended their screenings — and held question-and-answer sessions for fans.

The programme included films that premiered in London and others which have previously been seen at other festivals — such as Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Palme D’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. As such, the festival’s director has described the LFF as a festival of festivals.

Director Nick Broomfield at the Battle For Haditha screeningThe war against terrorism — and bereavement — are two of the recurring themes. Nick Broomfield’s latest narrative film, Battle For Haditha, is a no-nonsense take on the massacre of more than twenty innocent Iraqis that followed a fatal attack on US troops, during the latest conflict. Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs tackles the consquences of the war in Afghanistan. Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost In The Fire examining how a woman (Halle Berry) comes to terms with the murder of her husband (David Duchovny) — and a personal project from John Cusack (as producer and star), Gone Is Grace, combined the themes with Cusack struggling with how to tell his daughters that their mother — a soldier — had died in Iraq.

This film cleverly eschewed the politics, but politics played a big part in other films, such as Michael Moore’s latest attack on America’s institutions — Sicko presents Britain’s NHS as a far superior health system to the medical insurance-based healthcare provided in the US.

The environment also features, with Sean Penn’s dramatisation of the true-life story of a young man who takes himself out of modern-day life and, as the title suggests, Into The Wild.

As well as dramatised real-life stories such as Penn and Broomfield’s films, there were of course a number of documentaries too — among them, Amir Bar Lev’s My Kid Could Paint. That was one of the most interesting, following the four year old art prodigy, Marla Olmstead.

Among the more upbeat films, Jason Reitman’s follow-up to Thank You For Smoking, Juno, was a sharp, bright and mature tale of a precocious teen who becomes pregnant and decides to have the baby adopted rather than aborted.

Christian Bale arriving for the I’m Not There premiere A number of stars made appearances in more than one film at the festival — Christian Bale, who was in the Vietnam prisoner-of-war film Rescue Dawn, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, from the French romantic comedy I Do, both featured in Todd Haynes’ film based on the various stages of Bob Dylan’s career, I’m Not Here. Naomi Watts opened the festival in Eastern Promises and also turned up in Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games. Laura Linney also made two appearances — once at the screening of her latest sibling drama The Savages (this time partnered with Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and also for a separate talk on the prolific nature of her career.

As ever, the festival laid on a ‘surprise film’ on the second Sunday — fans who’d bought tickets and held their breath in anticipation were rewarded with a chance to see the new Coen Brothers film, No Country for Old Men.

The festival is not generally competitive, but there are a handful of awards handed out each year. Among the recipients this year, Joanna Hogg was the 10th FIPRESCI International Critics Award Winner for Unrelated and Sarah Gavron’s debut feature Brick Lane won her the Alfred Dunhill UK Film Talent Award — and the £15,000 that goes with it.