Thursday, September 4, 2008

And we’re off! To a very good start

One of the very cool things that come with being an alleged film reviewer is getting to see movies before everyone else does. Of course, nowhere does the perk from the cinema gods come in handier than at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The 33rd annual event officially kicks off tonight with the Canadian-based “Passchendaele,” which I’ll actually get to see this morning. Even better, five films already have been recorded in my reporter’s notebook after a slew of early preview screenings for the press.

Now, last year, my 15th consecutive TIFF visit, the first movie I watched turned out to be my "favorite," for lack of a better word. It was “Into the Wild,” writer/director Sean Penn’s definitive coming-of-age piece, featuring award-caliber performances from young Emile Hirsch and old-timer Hal Halbrook, one of Cleveland’s own.
Alas, come Oscar time, the film was shut out. The same fate likely awaits “Ghost Town,” my first festival viewing choice this year, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be the funniest movie of the 2008.

British comic icon Ricky Gervais (the co-creator of BBC's original version “The Office” and the often hilarious “Extras”) plays a very nasty dentist who falls in love (with the lovely Tea Leoni) with the help of some wandering spirits he can see only after his colonoscopy goes awry. (Don’t ask; just see it when it arrives in theaters Sept. 19).

Ironically – or maybe not -- “Ghost Town” is co-written and directed by David Koepp, the screenwriter of “Jurassic Park” (and so many others), whose second venture behind the camera, “The Trigger Effect,” found its way among my Top 10 films of 1996. And, if that’s not spooky enough, his latest film is very reminiscent of “Heart and Souls,” a Robert Downey Jr. starrer from Ron Underwood that made my “Best” list way back in 1993.

Interestingly, “Dean Spanley,” another nifty little festival presentation, offers an equally nasty if oddly touching performance from Peter O’Toole, whose last TIFF film (“Venus”) earned him an Oscar nomination. He dazzles again here as a witty, if sad widower/father somehow rejuvenated in an extremely well-written script (by Alan Sharp) that mixes Edwardian era reincarnation and a dog’s life, of all things.

There’s also some memorable work from Sam Neill in the title role, not to mention the lure of an apparently magical Hungarian Tokay liqueur, the sale of which likely will become brisk when this movie gets picked up by an American distributor (certainly by festival’s end).

Spike Lee’s epic “Miracle at St. Anna,” Ed Harris’ eloquent “Appaloosa,” and Guy Ritchie’s edgy “RocknRolla” show off the brutality of war, the Old West and London criminals, respectively, in the remaining trio of films I was able to see early. All three will be featured separately in the Sun News as they open in wide release. “Rocknrolla” also earns some festival play in my latest post on the MovieZen blog.
(Meanwhile, be sure to return here in a few days for more from Toronto, perhaps even a Brad Pitt sighting.)

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