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Buzz begins in Toronto at film festival

Stars accompany projects to growing global showcase and Oscar testing ground.

September 08, 2006|Jason Chow | Special to The Times

TORONTO — The Toronto International Film Festival kicked off Thursday and already, Canada's largest city is awash with celebrities, Oscar predictions and political controversy.

The paparazzi are primed for the red carpet arrivals of A-list stars including Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe. Several hyped films, including a remake of the classic "All the King's Men" and a Robert F. Kennedy biopic, are expected to begin their long push toward the Academy Awards. And political feathers are sure to be ruffled with Michael Moore scheduled to speak and the premiere of the controversial "Death of a President," a what-if documentary-style film about an assassination attempt on President George W. Bush.

Still, it's the celebrities that are likely to be the focus of attention. The roster of confirmed celebrity attendees, which includes Pierce Brosnan, Jennifer Lopez, Heath Ledger, Jude Law and Reese Witherspoon, has never been greater in the festival's history, a testament to the growing importance of the 10-day festival, which will showcase about 360 films from 62 countries.

"This year, a lot of significant personalities have put their names to interesting films, which is why they're here," said festival co-director Noah Cowan.

Because of its enormous size and its annual September schedule, Hollywood studios have long used the festival as a testing-ground for the Academy Awards.

"The festival has the greatest U.S. media presence of any festival in the world, except Cannes, and these days, it might be eclipsing Cannes," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Picture Classics; the studio screened "Capote" at last year's festival and will be behind Pedro Aldomavar's "Volver," starring Cruz, at this year's event.

"Toronto is very key to our strategy," Barker said. "It's the perfect platform. The Toronto audiences are extremely responsive to films, and it's great to show it to journalists in that kind of environment."

Of the films showing at this year's festival, the early Oscar bets are on "All the King's Men," starring Sean Penn, and "Babel," with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Critics also have their eye on "Bobby," the Kennedy biopic directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Elijah Wood, Lindsay Lohan and Anthony Hopkins. It represents the first serious Oscar hopeful from the Weinstein Co., created after brothers Bob and Harvey's split from Walt Disney and Miramax. Other films attracting attention include "Infamous," a new film on Truman Capote directed by Douglas McGrath; a new Christopher Guest movie titled "For Your Consideration"; and a comedy featuring Borat, the fictional Kazakh reporter played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

The festival "really helps predict how a film may perform in release," said Michelle Krumm, executive vice president of acquisition and co-production at Weinstein. "Toronto has always been a great launching pad because of the great films it attracts and because of its timing for academy season and fall releases."

Industry executives will also be sifting through the crowd of movies for this year's gem that has yet to get a distribution deal. Last year, Paramount Classics and Fox Searchlight engaged in a bidding war over the rights to "Thank You For Smoking." This year, several films, including "El Cantante," starring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez; "Penelope," starring Reese Witherspoon; and the Werner Herzog-directed "Rescue Dawn" are expected to draw heavy interest from buyers.

"Remember, 'Crash' showed in Toronto two years ago, and it was for sale," Barker said. "At Toronto, you're seeing the top crop from around the world."

Throughout the last month, much of the chatter about the festival had been centered on the controversial political film "Death of a President." The documentary-style film from Britain includes a digitally altered sequence that depicts a graphic assassination of Bush at the hands of a Syrian-born gunman.

Republican feathers may be rankled as well with the premiere of the documentary "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing," which follows the band's fallout after it criticized Bush at a concert in London. Also, Moore is scheduled to speak about public reaction to his last film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," as well as screen a clip from his upcoming documentary on the U.S. healthcare system, "Sicko."

"We don't shy away from politics," Cowan said. "We want to create as large of a debate as possible."

This year's festival is billed as the most international in its history, with high-profile premieres of films from India, China and Korea. Of the features being screened, 106 will be world premieres and 28 will be screening outside of their country of production for the first time. Toronto's multiethnic audiences make the festival a ready testing-ground for foreign-language films, and the festival is getting a larger global profile because of it.

The 10-day festival was scheduld to begin with the world premiere of "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," a Canada/Denmark co-production about the culture clash between European Arctic explorers and northern natives.

The festival ends Sept. 17 with the world premiere of "Amazing Grace," a film about British parliamentarian William Wilberforce and his crusade to end the slave trade in 18th century England.

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