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The stars are brighter, commentary sharper

Hollywood's big names and the day's big issues -- Iraq and security -- find their way north to a Canadian movie fest.

September 03, 2007|Jason Chow | Special to The Times

TORONTO -- A glance at the program at the Toronto International Film Festival reveals two prevailing themes at this year's event: The A-list is getting longer, and the films are getting more political.

Already a magnet for stars because of its reputation as an unofficial kickoff for the Oscars race and because of its ability to build buzz for fall and winter releases, the red carpet at the Toronto festival has been getting more crowded each passing year. This time around, those expected to pay a visit to Canada's largest city over the 10-day event include Brad Pitt, Woody Allen, George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Jodie Foster and Reese Witherspoon.

But the festival is also attracting famous non-actors as well and mostly for political reasons: Former President Jimmy Carter will be on hand to present a documentary about his peace agenda during his time in office, and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder is slated to play a song he wrote for "Body of War," a documentary about a soldier who was paralyzed during his first week of service in Iraq.

"It's an especially strong year for American film," said Piers Handling, the festival's co-director. "There's a lot of edgy stuff. There's a rigorous desire to take on tough contemporary issues, and the lightning rod is the Iraq war and the idea of security."

Handling cited several high-profile films that fit the theme: "Redacted," a Brian De Palma movie that is a commentary on the media's role in the war; "Nothing Is Private," an Alan Ball feature about a young Arab American girl during the Gulf War; and "The Visitor," a Thomas McCarthy film about a widower who tries to help a couple who are illegal immigrants ducking the long arm of U.S. officials.

Also premiering at the festival is "In the Valley of Elah," a new film by "Crash" director Paul Haggis. The movie, about a family that tries to find the truth behind their soldier son's disappearance after his return from Iraq, stars Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron.

Smaller, independent projects are the lure for many stars coming to Toronto, Handling said. Similar to last year's festival, which saw the premieres of "Babel" and "El Cantante," top-shelf talent are on hand to promote their small-budget films. "You're seeing more major talent . . . lifting the indie films to the mainstream," said Handling, citing Pitt's role in last year's festival hit "Babel."

Pitt is coming to Toronto again, promoting an independent western titled "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," in which Pitt plays James and Casey Affleck stars as Ford.

Similar to years past, many films are using Toronto as a testing ground for their fall releases, among them the new Noah Baumbach film, "Margot at the Wedding," a family drama starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black.

"Juno," slated to be released in December, reunites "Arrested Development" stars Jason Bateman and Michael Cera and is sure to garner buzz on the back of Cera's recent success in "Superbad." "Michael Clayton," which stars Clooney as a shady corporate lawyer, is likely to get a lot of attention as it leads to its October release.

Although the festival hasn't started, the most hyped star has been Blanchett, who is starring in two films at this year's event. She plays Queen Elizabeth in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and is one of the seven actors depicting Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There."

"It's a mind-blowing performance," Handling said of her portrayal of the folk singer.

Handling said that despite the strong Hollywood presence this year, the character of the festival was not changing.

"You want to keep a balance. You want the stars, but you can't have them overwhelming the event either. We think we have reached that balance. We're still committed to Canadian cinema, first-time filmmakers and international film."

He pointed out that the festival was screening more films from Israel and India than ever in its past and highlighted the new Ang Lee feature, "Lust, Caution," a Chinese drama set in World War II Shanghai. The film has already drawn controversy because of its NC-17 rating and Lee's refusal to tone down the explicit sexual content that elicited it.

The festival kicks off Wednesday with the premiere of the Canadian film "Fugitive Pieces," based on the novel by Anne Michaels, and ends Sept. 16 with "Emotional Arithmetic," which stars Gabriel Byrne and Christopher Plummer. In all, the festival will screen 349 films from 55 countries.

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