Pronto in Toronto
In the whirlwind that is the Toronto Film Festival, Michael Dwyer runs from screening to screening, catching two new crime dramas – one outstanding (David Cronenberg’s) and one a dud (Woody Allen’s) – and a mixed batch from actors-turned-directors Stuart
SNORING was audible at several Toronto cinemas during the week as the relentless daily round of movies and parties took their toll, but anybody feeling drowsy at the early morning press screening of David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises would have been jolted wide awake. A few minutes into the movie, a Russian gangster is seated in a barber’s chair when he gets a cut he doesn’t expect, and his throat is slit – in close-up.
Eastern Promises is set in London at Christmas time, among the city’s new affluent Russian population and at the ethnic restaurant run by the ostensibly genial Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose clients are dripping in jewels and wear anklelength furs. The restaurant is a front for the criminal empire Semyon runs, trafficking drugs and teenaged Chechen girls, with the help of his psychotic son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and their laconic chauffeur Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).
A young English midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), enters this world when she delivers the baby of a 14-year-old Russian prostitute, who dies after giving birth. The more Anna learns from the dead girl’s diary, the more her own life is threatened in Cronenberg’s tight, richly atmospheric thriller, which exerts an unsettling fascination and never follows a predictable route.
Scenes of startlingly graphic violence follow, one set in a bathhouse where the naked Nikolai fights for his life. Reuniting with Cronenberg after A History of Violence, Mortensen is on rare form in a perfectly chosen international cast that includes Sinead Cusack and Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski as Anna’s mother and uncle.
Cassandra’s Dream, Woody Allen’s crime drama, pales by compassion. Allen’s third consecutive movie to be shot and set in London (after Match Point and Scoop) features Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as working-class brothers Ian and Terry. Their uncle (Tom Wilkinson) lures them into a murder scheme when Ian seeks to fund his property-dealing dreams and gambling-addicted Terry is heavily in debt to moneylenders.
Allen’s screenplay pointedly quotes a line between the Barrow brothers in Bonnie and Clyde: “Isn’t life grand?” “Yeah, but look what happened to them.” There are few flashes of humour – and some surprisingly risible dialogue – in this flatly disap- pointing Allen movie. It is serious in intent, but difficult to take seriously given how frequently it strains the willing suspension of disbelief.
Allen stays behind the camera for Cassandra’s Dream (the title refers to the name of a boat, by the way), as does Sean Penn for Into the Wild, his fourth feature as a director. Penn adapted his screenplay from Jon Krakauer’s book, which charts the experiences of the ultimate dropout, Christopher McCandless, a West Virginia student who, in 1990, embarks on a quest for utopian simplicity. He donates his sub-
Battle in Seattle pinpoints troublemakers on both sides: demonstrators who break ranks and smash shop windows, and batonhappy cops out to get “tree huggers”. Townsend extends his brief to focus on a Medicine Without Frontiers representative (Rade Sherbedgia) whose pleas for cheaper drugs in the developing world are stonewalled by the pharmaceutical industry.
When events spiral out of control, the movie is at its most effective, as Barry Ackroyd, Ken Loach’s regular cinematographer, makes gripping use of handheld camerawork to capture all the chaos, fear and violence.
Helen Hunt, another actor turning writerdirector with a movie premiered at Toronto this week, produces gooey blandness in Then She Found Me. In the whirlwind early scenes, April (Hunt), a 39-year-old New Seattle with fellow idealists protesting York schoolteacher, marries a colleague against the World Trade Organisation (Matthew Broderick). They break up withmeeting there in November 1999. Making in a year and April’s adoptive mother dies. an impassioned debut as screenwriter and Enter her birth mother, a daytime TV director, Irish actor Stuart Townsend chat show host played by Bette Midler. She takes the viewer inside both sides of the claims that April’s father was a movie star conflict in Battle in Seattle. (Steve McQueen, no less), although this is
Townsend himself is heard but not seen, contradicted after a Google search by narrating a succinct history of globalisaApril’s new suitor, an English single parent tion over newsreel footage that sets the played by an uncomfortably miscast Colin context for the dramatisation to follow. Firth in a role that cries out for Hugh Grant. While political agendas are to the foreHunt came to fame in the long-running front inside and outside the meeting, he siTV sitcom Mad About You, which pepmultaneously addresses the personal dipered more wit and insight into a halfmension, populating his picture with fichour episode than her movie achieves at tional characters, some factually based. more than three times that length. It may They include the leaders of the protest play well with the so-called chick flick au(Martin Henderson and Michelle Roddience, but some of the chicks sitting near rigeuz), whose avowed credo is nonviome at this flick were too busy texting to lent action; the city’s beleaguered mayor care. (Ray Liotta); and a police officer (Woody Harrelson), and his pregnant wife (CharlMichael Dwyer concludes his reports from ize Theron) who ventures into the wrong the 2007 Toronto festival in The Irish Times place at the wrong time. next Wednesday stantial college fund to Oxfam America, destroys all forms of ID, changes his name to Alexander Supertramp, and heads north to Alaska.
As is de rigueur for the road movie genre, McCandless has several encounters along the way, with a post-hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a jovially feckless farm worker (Vince Vaughn) and in the most touching scenes, a lonely retired army veteran beautifully played by Hal Holbrook. Emile Hirsch, who is on screen throughout, portrays McCandless with an engaging blend of determination and vulnerability in a physically demanding performance for which he clearly did most of his own stunts.
Penn’s leisurely telling of the story never drags as it moves back and forward in time, and the film is handsomely photographed by Eric Gautier against striking, changing landscapes.
Had McCandless returned home, he may well had been out on the streets of
Hit: Eastern Promises (above left). Miss: Cassandra’s Dream (above right). Sean Penn’s Into
(below left) and Stuart Townsend’s (below right)
Battle in Seattle
Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell and arrive at the premiere of Cassandra’s Dream in Toronto