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Toronto #7: Festival to remember

TORONTO – I have another few movies to see, and the awards are still to be announced, but Toronto 2005 is basically history, and now what remains is for its many wonderful films to find their audiences. There’s general agreement that this will be an autumn to remember among those who care about good films.

The first movie I saw at this year’s festival was “The Heart of the Game,” the documentary about the young Seattle basketball star Darnellia Russell. It came here without distribution, Toronto audiences embraced it, and late in the festival it made history: It was the first acquisition by the “new” (i.e., post-Weinstein) Miramax. There was also a stir when Jason Reitman’s satiric comedy “Thank You for Smoking,” with Aaron Eckhart as a spokesman for the tobacco industry, sold for a reported Toronto record of $6.5 million, after one of those bidding disputes that used to be a specialty of Sundance.

For Atom Egoyan, the Canadian director of “Where the Truth Lies,” the news was bad and good. His film, which I thought was one of the best I saw at Cannes last May, played here while going through an appeal of its NC-17 rating by the MPAA. On Friday, Egoyan described the appeals process as a bad dream. The disputed scene involves three-way sex between the two members of a 1950s comedy team (Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon) and a young woman played by Alison Lohman, who is later found dead.

The scene cannot be cut without destroying the movie; it is crucial to the murder mystery in the plot, and also explains the breakup of the act. For that reason, Egoyan said, he did not make it sexually explicit, since he was under contract from producer Robert Lantos to deliver an R movie. The MPAA slapped on the NC-17, upheld its ruling on appeal, and did not need under its own rules to give reasons.

“Lantos is a stand-up guy and will release the film unrated,” Egoyan said. “What disturbed and confused me was that in addition to the 10-member board, there were two other people in the room. I asked who they were. They were clergymen, one Catholic, one Episcopalian. I asked why they were there and didn’t get an answer, but they were allowed to sit in on the secret deliberations of the Ratings Board.”

In the days of the Ontario Censor Board, now abolished, its guidelines were at least published and had the status of law. The baffling thing about the MPAA, Egoyan said, is that they do not specify what can and cannot be shown, and do not have to explain their decisions. His movie is not in any way a sex or exploitation film, he said, and I agree. “By giving it an NC-17, they are denying parents the privilege of deciding for themselves if their teenager children should be allowed to see it.”

The last few days of Toronto are valuable to critics because most of the big-star must-see vehicles roared out of town after the weekend. You can make off beat discoveries, and I made three:

It will be fun to read the reviews of John Turturro’s “Romance and Cigarettes,” and watch the critics trying to describe a film whose charm depends on how it can’t be pinned down. It‘s a comedy suffused with melancholy, a musical in which the characters sing along with their favorite records, a slice of life crossed with magic realism, a story about everyday working people who have nothing everyday about them. Even its language ventures from vulgarity to high poetry.

James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon star as a long-married Brooklyn couple with a family of wacky grown children. She finds evidence he’s been fooling around, and banishes him from her bed and her regard. He petitions for re-admission. Kate Winslet plays the scarlet woman, part real, part dreams. Advise and dissent comes from supporting characters played by Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken and Elaine Stritch, who steal not only every scene they’re in but every word they use; occasionally even their body language in long shot steals a scene.

The musical numbers are gloriously messy with exuberance: Just like in real life, the characters have a jukebox in their heads playing their favorite songs, which sometimes burst out onto the sound track and cause whole neighborhoods to sing along, even the cops and garbage men. Toronto audiences love it. Its distribution rights went up for grabs after United Artists was absorbed by Sony, and now it has inspired, if not exactly a bidding war, certainly a border skirmish.

Josh Gilbert’s “a.k.a. Tommy Chong” is a documentary about the entrapment and prosecution of comedian Tommy Chong on charges of selling bong pipes through the mail. You do not have to approve of drugs to be offended by the way the Justice Department under John Ashcroft created a fictitious head shop in Pennsylvania for the specific purpose of ordering paraphernalia from the Chong family’s web-based retail story, in order to nail him with that state’s laws against such merchandise.

As the co-star of druggie comedies of the 1970s, none of which I much liked, Chong was a symbol of an era hated by Washington’ new Puritans. The movie argues that in federal courts the power is held, not by judges, but by prosecutors, who offer plea bargains to get what they want. They offered Tommy Chong a deal: Plead guilty and serve 10 months, and we will not prosecute your wife and son. He pled. Of all the defendants of this particular government sting, Chong was the only one with no prior convictions who actually served time. Yes, Chong broke the law. But the paraphernalia law went unenforced and ignored for years until the Ashcroft minions dusted it off and aimed its cross-hairs straight at Tommy Chong.

Annette Bening can play the sweetest, sunniest, most reasonable of women. There are times in “Mrs. Harris” when you would trust your children to the private school Jean Harris administers in Philadelphia. There are other times when she is shooting Dr. Herman Tarnower, the diet guru of Scarsdale, N.Y., in the notorious 1980 murder case. Did she mean to kill him, or did he die in a struggle over a gun while she was trying to kill herself? We will never know. What the movie argues, however, is that Tarnower was a right proper bastard, a monstrous egoist who treated Harris and his other mistresses with high-handed arrogance and low contempt.

Ben Kinsley plays the doctor as the kind of man who, awakened by a lover who has driven five hours in the rain to be with him, complains that she woke him up. A man who coldly promises to cut Jean Harris out of his life if she complains about his blatant affairs with other women. A man whose primary qualifications for writing the best-selling Scarsdale Diet book were his arrogance and his cook. Mrs. Harris, on the other hand, is a lonely and proper woman who, after years of his scorn, hath the fury of hell.

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