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Star power - plus a strong political streak

This year's lineup reflects a greater willingness among filmmakers to face difficult issues, Guy Dixon reports

Globe and Mail Update

The new epic by Richard Attenborough, the latest dose of politics from Michael Moore and a host of new films by such acclaimed directors as Jonathan Demme, Sidney Lumet and Brian De Palma were saved for the Toronto International Film Festival's last and biggest announcement yesterday before the 10-day festival begins on Sept. 6.

With nearly 350 Canadian, international and mature-minded Hollywood films in the festival, gleaning anything close to a unifying theme is impossible. But as TIFF co-director Noah Cowan noted, there's a greater willingness among filmmakers this year, particularly producers in Hollywood, to confront the most difficult issues of the day.

"This is a year flush with strong political cinema starring famous people," Cowan said yesterday.

For instance, De Palma's drama Redacted tells the story of American soldiers caught in a conflict with Iraqis in the ancient city of Samarra. Based on real events, it examines the contrasting viewpoints of the Americans and Iraqis, as well as the media covering the clash.

Meanwhile, taking on civil-liberties violations within the United States is Thomas McCarthy's drama The Visitor.

An obvious lightning rod, however, will be Michael Moore's Captain Mike Across America, a documentary featuring Moore's whirlwind tour of college campuses during the 2004 presidential election.

Another documentary is Demme's film Man from Plains announced yesterday, which follows former president Jimmy Carter as he walked headlong into the debate about Palestine on a book tour last year.

"There has been a 180-degree shift in U.S. filmmaking from last year," Cowan said. "There are still great comedies and wonderful entertainment in the films that are showing. But there's seriousness and purposefulness in the U.S. cinema that I haven't seen since the seventies."

Besides the long list of international and Canadian films (many of which come to TIFF looking to be bought by North American distributors), a handful or so Hollywood films will also be shown. The studios hope to use TIFF as a publicity springboard before the films are released in the fall. But Cowan said TIFF programmers are selective when it comes to Hollywood.

"We're very clear-eyed about the relationship," he noted. "We turn down more films from [major] studios than we accept. The ones we take have to provide one of two things: They have to push the envelope of film as an art form, be aesthetically challenging. Or they have to provide a forum for social debate. Is the film addressing the issues of the day?"

He pointed to the gala presentation on Sept. 7 of director Gavin Hood's Rendition, which is about covert Central Intelligence Agency policies and secret detention centres and stars Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal. Another gala that same evening is Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, staring George Clooney in a drama about corporate greed and environmental destruction in the United States.

"Now, these aren't your normal studio movies. These are filmmakers working with real budgets to make important movies, to make films that actually matter," Cowan said.

Some notable films announced yesterday outside the political scope, however, include: Kenneth Branagh's new version of the play Sleuth, starring Jude Law and Michael Caine; Attenborough's Closing the Ring, about a promise kept by lovers from the Second World War, starring Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer; and Sydney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon), directing actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in the heist film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, about a family effectively robbing itself.

Actor Alison Eastwood, daughter of actor-director Clint, also makes her directorial debut in a film about the aftermath of a train accident, Rails & Ties, starring Kevin Bacon, while Paul Schrader's drama The Walker turns attention back on Washington and its scandals, with a supporting cast featuring Lauren Bacall, Willem Defoe and Lily Tomlin.

What may also jump out for some is the strong assortment of music films. Take Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who. "This is not like the Martin Scorsese hagiography of Bob Dylan," No Direction Home, which played the festival two years ago, Cowan noted. "It's a very tough-minded movie, and members of the Who come across as being fairly unpleasant people for a lot of the movie."

Or take another documentary, Lou Reed's Berlin by artist-director Julian Schnabel, who also has a dramatic feature playing TIFF. "It's not exactly the most uplifting movie you can imagine. It's about heroin addicts and such things," Cowan added with a laugh.

Most attention will no doubt be on the biggest films and biggest stars in the festival's opening days. But the festival has another important side: its public mission to bring more Canadian and world cinema to film buffs. To do so, the festival has been quietly adding more and more public screenings for Canadian and international films in the closing days of the festival.

"There's a real rush to see the stars on the red carpets early on in the festival. And then people get down to the serious business of watching movies," Cowan said.

Also heading to TIFF

Other actors and film types (and even a former U.S. president) due to arrive at the festival:

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan

Juliette Binoche

Emily Blunt

Jimmy Carter

Michael Douglas

Samuel L. Jackson

Tommy Lee Jones

Keira Knightley

Ewan McGregor

Viggo Mortensen

Liam Neeson

Sean Penn

Susan Sarandon

Charlize Theron

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