Loose Themes and a Bad Day for Cat Lovers

in 29st Toronto International Film Festival

by Katherine Tulich

After dissecting through more than 300 films screened at this years Toronto Film Festival its always inevitable that certain themes or at least loose groupings of subject matters start to emerge (or maybe that’s how film critics busy their mind as they patiently, and most definitely the case in Toronto, politely queue to be admitted into a film).

But groups of films fell easily into obvious categories. Biopics were plentiful, including Kevin Spacey’s vanity project on deceased singer Bobby Darin, “Beyond The Sea”. Spacey’s attempt to link the deceased singer to the cool hip of the rat pack, all but seemed to fizz as most people either didn’t remember the one time 50s crooner or if they did, didn’t seem to care.

Interest was more heated for Universal Pictures “Ray” starring Jamie Foxx as the recently deceased music legend Ray Charles. Ultimately disappointing the Taylor Hackford film showcases some of Charles great songs (adequately lip synched by Foxx), but does little to shed much light on Charles’ troubled past, with a conclusion that fast forwards past much of Charles’ career.

Perhaps the most successful biopics were the ones that focused on more interesting historical figures, such as Walter Salles illuminating focus on the early life of Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries” and the warmly reviewed “Kinsey” which stars Liam Neeson as the groundbreaking sex researcher.

With Toronto’s traditional focus on African Cinema which this year highlighted a program titled South Africa: Ten Years Later On, film’s reflected that continents healing process post apartheid including the admirable debut feature from Tom Hooper, “Red Dust”, an epically shot thriller set during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings . But certainly the film that tugged on heartstrings and overwhelmingly won the popular vote at the Festival was Terry George’s “Hotel Rwanda”. A companion piece was documentary “Shaking Hands With the Devil,” about the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, who commanded the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda 10 years ago ( a role fictionalized by Nick Nolte in “Hotel Rwanda”).

Post 9/11 cynicism fueled filmmakers Wim Wenders in “Land of Plenty” and John Sayles thinly veiled Bush parody, “Silver City” about a well connected, ill qualified born again gubernatorial candidate. Presidential hopeful John Kerry was the topic of his own movie “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry” by documentary film maker George Butler. The doco focuses on the war veteran’s return from Vietnam and his consequent controversial activism against the war.

Domestic pets also had some good but mostly a bad time of it at the Festival. On the positive and sentimental side was Japan’s “Quills” who took a Lassie approach to the life of a seeing eye dog and Bruce Weber’s sentimental postcard to his Golden Retriever in “A Letter to True”.

But dog deaths also were also an over utilized plot device in many films at the Festival… a puppy death motivates irrational behaviour in China’s “Electric Shadows”, proves the brutality of its protagonist in “Bullet Boy”, is used as a deadbeat comic ploy in Australia’s “Oyster Farmer” and becomes the sad action of a mentally disabled brother in writer/director/actor Aksel Hennie’s excellent debut feature “Uno”.

But if it was a rough festival for dogs, it was far worse for cats, with the highly controversial “Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat” about an infamous Toronto animal cruelty case which drew a stream of animal protesters whenever the Festival screened it.