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On the Scene at Toronto: Forest Whitaker, Will Ferrell, and Christopher Guest

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11325__scotland_l_2Film festivals always remind you vaguely of refugee camps: Masses of huddled, hungry desperate humanity queue up for a morsel of precious cinema, while wary unarmed international minders (here, as elsewhere, Canadian) stalk the halls, fearing a riot. Such thoughts have a way of creeping in after seeing your 50th movie about corruption, tyranny, paranoia and hammer-handed governance. Hoo-boy, for a festival with some notable comedies (Borat, For Your Consideration, Stranger Than Fiction, Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show), this Toronto has distinguished itself as one hell of a Hobbesian horror show, heavy on dictatorships, torture scenes, anarchy and its close cousin, autocracy, and civil war. And while the two most talked-about buys were on the lighter side (the Vaughn comedy doc and the hip slasher pic All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), MGM’s purchase of Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog’s audience-beloved Vietnam P.O.W. story (starring Christian Bale), demonstrated an industry interest in grittier fare. (Then again, Rescue Dawn, a narrative revisiting of Herzog’s own 1997 doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly, is the closest thing to an uplifting war story this festival has on offer — and even here, underneath the triumphant tale of survival and camaraderie, there’s a near Nietzchean and definitely Herzogian undertone of heroic oblivion.)

addCredit(“The Last King of Scotland: Neil Davidson”)

Let’s begin with my favorite film so far, a movie that reportedlyreceived the longest standing ovation at Cannes and broughtToronto-goers to their feet, as well: Pan’s Labyrinth,Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous genre-bending fable about a young girl’sescape into a fantastical moral maze while living under the iron fistof her stepfather, a ruthless fascist colonel in the Spanish Civil War.Del Toro, always a prodigiously imaginative talent, here revealshimself as both a master fabulist and a uncompromisingly realist,rescuing the fairy tale from Disneyfication and fulfilling the promiseof Jim Henson’s darkest and most ambitious work. (On one level, thefilm can be read as an homage to Labyrinth.)

Monsters roam Toronto: It’s whispered Forest Whitaker will get an Oscar nod for playing one in The Last King of Scotland,one of the finer examples of a genre I normally find suspicious: thebleeding-Africa-via-white-protagonist movie. At its best, Last King,a partly fictitious meta-history of Idi Amin’s Uganda, is a cunningseduction, aimed primarily at Euro-descended audiences; you realize themain character, Dr. Garrigan, is using Africa as a playground for hisitchy id, with the full encouragement of Amin, who’s selected him ashis prized “white monkey.” But this is a Heart of Darknessstory turned inside out, as Whitaker’s Amin overthrows the film andclings to power with a terrifying ferocity. There’s a shortage ofactors who really know how to marshal their bulk: Whitaker is aplanetoid presence with his own gravity, his own laws of physics, andKevin Macdonald’s giddy lens, reminiscent of a less twitchy Tony Scott,captures his animal magnetism perfectly.

Not all tales of tyranny are faring so well: All the King’s Menhas been largely dismissed by festivalgoers as a bloated nebula of finecinematic intentions and strong performances lacking a real core — inshort, I’m hearing yawns. (So many that I chose to miss it and seesomething else.) Similar shrugs have seemed to accompany RussellCrowe’s A Good Year. In general, audiences have found themselves unimpressed with the studio premieres. Stranger Than Fictionis an exception: The tale of a character (Will Ferrell) in search ofhis author (Emma Thompson) has been well received; I found it cleverand likable, but not particularly substantial, with a collegiateinsistence on its smartypants conceit. (What does it mean to preservethe life of a fictional character anyway? Is this an argument forputting the humanity back in the humanities, or just a hollowKaufmanesque gesture without the Kaufmanesque heavy lifting? Ferrelland Maggie Gyllenhall are immensely likable, but there’s really notmuch for them to do, once it becomes clear they have no agency, no realhumanity. That said, it’s a deft little stunt with plenty of finemoments, especially for Ferrell, who has real warmth — if only so-soelectricity — in his subdued “ac-TOR” mode.)

  Laugh-starved audiences also raved about Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration,and again, I dissent: This is by far Guest’s weakest, smallest,pettiest film, an often funny but remorselessly goofy andsketch-derived burlesque of awards-season hysteria, viewed through thelens of Guest’s favorite target, the delusional small-timer. CatherineO’Hara, as washed-up actress Marilyn Hack, is the perfect Guestmonster, a marvelously gross caricature of need, but Guest isn’tinterested in anything but her destruction, which is never in doubt.(He’s a lot like Emma Thompson’s character-killing author in Stranger Than Fiction,come to think of it.) Also, the abandonment of the mockumentary formhas resulted in an erosion of sincerity. Guest’s talented troupe, nowmore rigorously scripted, feel free to go broad, and the results don’tseem committed to any particular comic reality; it’s just goofymustaches and go-to showbiz jokes, with some ethnic stereotypes thrownin for spice.

Back in the non-comedy world, I found myself nearly undone by two incredible documentaries: Deliver Us From Evil(a deeply troubling film about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church,made with the full and eager participation of former Father and repeatoffender Oliver O’Grady) and Ghosts of Cite Soleil (a stark andpowerful doc about Haiti in the twilight of Aristide — scored byWyclef Jean, edited with a machine pistol, shot in a vicious twist ofheat and hate and sidelong violence you don’t see coming until it’s onyou, this piece continues staring into the abyss when you most want itto look away.)

Then, finally, there’s the quieter violence of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, from Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)director Zacharias Kunuk. Christianity comes to the Arctic ice, and aspirit world melts before your very eyes. This is the some of thesubtlest magic ever put on screen, as the film unfolds with adocumentary naturalism that challenges your ideas of narrative. Perhapsthat’s where the real revolution is taking place: Conventionalfilmmaking wisdom is under attack — as it always should be, right?

Maybe. With elections just around the corner and interest groupshard at work to portray filmmakers as troublesome malcontents, thisyear’s Toronto is already being tarred as “radical.” Maybe that’s whythe buyers seem a tad tentative. Meanwhile, the filmmakers say theywant a revolution — as long as someone will underwrite it. Thestandoff continues. Stay tuned.