Toronto '06: Shut Up and Shoot

'Death of a President' and other film fest trigger-pullers blow away dissent

Forget awards-season contenders starring Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, and Kate Winslet: The hottest ticket at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival featured not a star, but the mother of all panic-button premises—the assassination of President George W. Bush. As if to prove what Red Skelton once quipped about the well-attended funeral of Columbia mogul Harry Cohn—"It proves what they always say: Give the people what they want, and they'll come out for it"—the bogus British documentary Death of a President became an object of perpetual frustration for foreign and domestic press, who chased the film in vain all week from screening to overpacked screening.

Perhaps the first film to posit the popping of a presiding POTUS, D.O.A.P. (as it was teasingly listed in the official schedule) was an object of controversy even before Toronto '06 had screened a single film. Going into the festival, director Gabriel Range's what-if pseudo-doc—which shows the speculative fallout from President Bush's shooting at a Chicago protest riot in October 2007—had the echo chamber booming, though the talk quieted considerably once the film actually screened. The irony is that the attention on D.O.A.P. allowed more incendiary films to slip through Toronto without the accompanying furor.

Why does any of this matter? Because Toronto, the largest film festival in North America, arguably sets the agenda for the coming year's U.S. releases. It's the place where studios dangle award-bait prestige pictures like Douglas McGrath's Infamous (Capote's daringly dark-humored doppelganger) and Roger Michell's Venus (a study of actors in twilight, with a lusty Peter O'Toole lead)—two of many films that could have borrowed the title of Christopher Guest's startlingly sour Oscar lampoon For Your Consideration. Yet it's also the place where rabid Midnight Madness audiences herald lowbrow sensations such as Black Sheep, an amiably dopey New Zealand splatter movie about mutant mutton. (The Host, a thrilling Korean monster movie whose best moments rival Jaws for giddy, giggly terror, was by far the pick of this year's crop—not counting the side-splitting Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen's geopolitical Jackass romp, which evaporated in the projector on opening night and nearly caused a riot.)

Like the '40s, but without hope: Paul Verhoeven's 'Blackbook'
ContentFilm Intl.
Like the '40s, but without hope: Paul Verhoeven's 'Blackbook'

Politically—and, sadly, aesthetically—the 12-month American film distribution forecast calls for pain from some of the fest's highest-profile titles, whose social conscience is as admirable as the films themselves are regrettable. Spinning four seemingly unrelated stories into a tapestry of tone-deaf American indifference to other cultures, Babel proves that director Alejandro González Iñárritu and author Guillermo Arriaga have exhausted the gimmicky plot shuffling of their Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Despite good-to-great performances by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Gael García Bernal, an extraordinarily compelling first hour yields a succession of ludicrous, overwrought payoffs in the second, signifying a screenwriter's contrivance more than a nation's guilt.

Worse, Emilio Estevez's Bobby, an elegy for the end of '60s idealism gussied up with laborious contemporary parallels, turns the day leading up to Robert F. Kennedy's assassination at the Ambassador Hotel into an Irwin Allen disaster movie, with an all-star Grand Hotel guest list (Demi Moore! Anthony Hopkins! Ashton Kutcher!) leaving no vacancies except those where convincing characters and dialogue should be. For sheer missed opportunity in Katrina's wake, the biggest disappointment was Steven Zaillian's turgid, strenuously miscast new version of All the King's Men, with a wildly gesticulating Sean Penn failing to capture the Huey Long surrogate's man-of-the-people magnetism and canny grasp of hard times.

After these earnest but muddled broadsides, the Dixie Chicks doc Shut Up and Sing came as a direct hit—a funny, feisty, one-sided blast of populist outrage that settles their haters' hash more playfully and persuasively than their recent Taking the Long Way album. Apparently intended as a tour document, the project morphed once lead Chick Natalie Maines made her now-infamous 2003 remark about being ashamed that the president was from Texas. Veteran documentarian Barbara Kopple and co-director Cecilia Peck get an all-access pass as right-wing websites target the three bandmates, country radio gives them a cold shoulder, and tour sponsors and publicists try to figure out a face-saving spin in the face of record burnings and death threats. By film's end, the Chicks have paid professionally and personally, but they've decided the cost of speaking their minds is worth it. Watching President Bush address the controversy on TV, Maines exclaims, "What a dumbfuck!"—a line that drew the most thunderous response of anything at the festival.

The Weinstein Company plans to make Shut Up and Sing heard far and wide before the November elections, but no distributor has shown the guts to pick up a far more complex and troubling documentary. Shot over a period of 16 years, Tony Kaye's astonishing Lake of Fire scrutinizes the abortion debate from all sides and gives comfort to none. Filming in beautiful (and deeply ironic) black and white, American History X director Kaye juxtaposes Randall Terry and Noam Chomsky, visits clinics turned into crime scenes, and follows the procedure from choice to tearful aftermath. The tiny, easily identifiable human remains of aborted children are shown in close-up, as are the bodies of abortion doctors murdered by anti-abortion terrorists. The irreconcilable divide Kaye finds, fueled by militias and neo-Nazi groups, seems destined for near-Bosnian conflict.

In the face of such fury, a viewer at Toronto '06 was left to seek escape in unlikely places—like Nazi Germany. Audiences devoured the blockbuster panache of Paul Verhoeven's Blackbook, a crackling World War II spy yarn shot through with the director's kinky eroticism, hothouse sangfroid, and corrosive skepticism about human nature. No tradition-of-quality Oscar bait, this Dutch thriller about a Jewish cabaret singer (Carice van Houten in a star-making performance) who avenges her family's betrayal and murder by literally sleeping with the enemy is a breathless old-school melodrama—the most entertaining film at the festival. Yet even it whisks away its short-lived promise of peace in a brilliant last shot.

Somehow, though, flickers of beauty and hope surfaced in the strangest places—in the Grimm visuals of Guillermo del Toro's dazzling Pan's Labyrinth, a dark fairytale anchored in Franco's Spain; in the past-erasing rubblescape of Jia Zhangke's last-minute addition Still Life; and in the Lisbon tenements of Pedro Costa's gorgeous Colossal Youth, where lighting worthy of Rembrandt is the director's gift to the tenacious tenants. No film proved more restorative to the senses than Syndromes and a Century, a reverie from the uniquely gifted Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. For its first half, the film is awash in the natural sounds and tree-filtered light shading a rural clinic: It's a summer picnic of a movie that beckons outside.

But the most optimistic film in the Toronto lineup, especially for Americans, may have been Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell's hardcore extravaganza juggling the (unfaked) sex lives of straight and gay New Yorkers without privileging any orientation, quirk, or fetish over another. Under the benign gaze of a stylized Statue of Liberty, there's room for all in Mitchell's soapy, silly, big-hearted spectacle, the kind of ambitious adult film that people vainly hoped Deep Throat would make possible. In the key scene, three male lovers enact a triple-X daisy chain while singing the national anthem: It comes off not as a sneering provocation, but a celebration of genuine personal freedom—one nation, under covers, indivisible, with liberty and felching for all. Is this a great country or what? Let Cohen's wild-eyed cross-country explorer Borat have the last word: "Is nice!"

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