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Toronto #6: Stars present & future

Matthew Modine was attending the Toronto Film Festival launch party for the U.S. edition of Norman Jewison’s autobiography, so the subject of his own memoirs came up. “I don’t know if that book will ever be written,” he said. “But I am publishing Full Metal Diary, which is the diary I kept when I was making Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ That was so long ago that when I read it, it’s like the writings of a young actor who doesn’t have a whole lot to do with me. An actor writing journal entries on the set every day, just excited to be working with this great director on this film.”

Modine was at Toronto with two films: Udayan Prasad’s sweet and good-hearted “Opa!,” where he plays an archeologist who falls in love with the high-spirited owner (Agni Scott) of a taverna on a Greek island – a beloved local institution which may be located directly above the ancient church holding St. John’s Cup. Which is more important: The present or the past?

Modine’s other film is much more controversial. Abel Ferrara’s “Mary,” indirectly inspired by Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” stars Modine as the director of a film about Mary Magdalene (Juliette Binoche). He is cynical, she is spiritual, and a talk show host (Forest Whitaker) is the catalyst for their passionate disagreement over the film. “Mary” won the Jury Prize at Venice, which is essentially second place. Modine, who was there, says Ferrara grumbled, “I totally disapprove of awards for films. But if they give them, I want to win.”

Michael Cuesta’s “Twelve and Holding” is another of the treasures in this festival of one remarkable film after another. Set in a New York suburb, it involves 12-year-olds in crisis, who attempt to solve problems they do not understand.

Zoe Weizenbaum gives an astonishingly focused and intense performance as the daughter of a therapist (Annabella Sciorra) who provides her with psycho-babble but leaves her feeling abandoned by an absent father. She gets a crush on one of her mother’s clients, a depressed construction worker (Jeremy Renner), and sets boldly about trying to attract him.

Meanwhile, a nighttime firebombing of a tree house leads to the accidental death of one twin and the anguish of his brother (both played by Conor Donovan). And a fat boy (Jesse Camacho) from a fat family begins to diet after asking a coach, “Why are you doing this for me?” “Because,” says the coach, “I’ve never met a child so out of shape in my life.”

All of these children love their parents, and all of them find dangerous ways of trying to express their love, in a film that negotiates carefully between drama and melodrama. The common thread is that the parents, who also love their children, are not expressing their love in a way that can help these kids at these moments in their lives.

Norman Jewison is the patron saint of Movieville. He has long since proven he is a great director of enormous reach, able to make both “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hurricane,” both “Moonstruck” and “In the Heat of the Night,” both “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968) and “A Soldier’s Story.” We know that. But there are other great directors of enormous reach.

What grants Jewison sainthood, I reflect, as I attend the launch party for his autobiography, is how generous he is in helping newcomers and the movie industry in general. You sense his spirit in the title of his book, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me.

At the earliest Toronto festivals I attended, Norman was the sponsor and backer of a young Canadian director named Atom Egoyan. He has advised and boosted countless others. In those years he held a picnic on his farm west of town for the visiting filmmakers, festival people and critics. The first year, he recalls in his autobiography, there were 268 guests.

When the festival got too big for a picnic on his farm, he was ready for that, too: By then he had founded the Canadian Film Center, taking over an estate on the edge of Toronto and turning it into the northern version of the American Film Institute. He has also taken on the thankless task of directing Oscarcasts and, in general, somehow made good films while nevertheless being a good guy. Oh, and he was the first director to wear a baseball cap, starting a global fashion trend all by himself. Hard to believe that such a trend actually had a beginning and didn’t always exist, but someone had to be first, and it’s hard to imagine Hitchcock in a baseball cap.

A festival like Toronto attracts hopeful filmmakers eager to pitch projects and find financing. Here, for example, are Alex Ferrari and Jorge Rodriguez, the director and producer of “Broken,” a 19-minute, $8,000 horror film containing, by their count, more than 100 visual effects.

“We’re here to talk about a development deal for a feature based on the short,” Rodriguez tells me, before the screening of “Twelve and Holding.” “Who you talking to?” I ask. “We’d better not say,” Ferrari says.

He gives me a DVD of their short: “We’ve already sold 1,000 copies online. It contains six commentary tracks and like three hours of information on how to shoot low-budget digital films and how to do the special effects. It’s like a training course.” They refer me to their web site, www.whatisbroken.com, and back at the hotel I view the film and visit the site.

The film is effective and professional and the ominous sound track works with the images to create the desired effect. Whether the plot quite rises above the level of “it was only a dream” I am not prepared to say. Whether the short will someday grow into a good film we will know only if the development deal goes through.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that gifted and ambitious young filmmakers can, with very little money, use the new digital technology to make a presentation that gets attention from industry pros. Kerry Conran’s “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004) was floated the same way, with a home-made demo made on his Mac. Whether this is better than the old-fashioned method of submitting a screenplay is a good question; “Broken” is essentially a demonstration of the mastery of horror imagery and techniques. A screenplay has to also have dimensional characters (one, two or three dimensions, depending on its ambition) and a story. In an industry so impenetrable for newcomers, any way you break in is the right way. Then it depends on what you do. Looking forward to “Broken: The Feature.”

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