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Toronto fest: The big picture

September 11, 2006 |  9:14 am

Overview

Penelope Cruz is being interviewed by 30 journalists, two "roundtables" of a dozen more plus a hoard of mass media at a press conference while she spends 4 days at the Toronto International Film Festival. That's what kind of madness it is for participants. "Then Pedro (Almodovar) and I go to New York and Los Angeles for more promotion of 'Volver,'" she told me yesterday as we lounged on the patio of the Intercontinental Hotel conducting one of those visits.

At least Penelope isn't squeezing in many screenings, too, like we journos do in between interviewing several filmmakers per day. Plus find time for blogging. And, oh, yeah, partying and sleep. Among the interviews I've conducted so far, in addition to Cruz, were video chats with Ridley Scott ("A Good Year"), Marc Forster ("Stranger Than Fiction"), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel") while our Envelope colleague Paul Sheehan ran camera. (Thank you, Paul!) Also audio podcasts with Christian Bale and Werner Herzog ("Rescue Dawn"). Today I'm doing the "Little Children" gang: audio podcast with Kate Winslet and video interviews with costar Patrick Wilson and director Todd Field. Plus lots more coming up this week. They'll be posted here at The Envelope throughout Oscar season.

But, wait a sec, since I want to give you an idea of the overall scene up here in Toronto, let's go back to the Intercontinental Hotel where tensions run high up on the second floor thanks to a hilarious accident of geographic placement that occurred when the spawn of Harvey Weinstein booked their suites. The Weinstein Co.'s and Miramax's rooms are right near each other — and adjacent to those of the Dart Group, which employs a few notable alums of Harvey's Oscar School at his old Miramax, now out on their own handling academy campaigns for many contenders ("Venus," "The Queen," "Dreamgirls," "Little Children," Stranger Than Fiction," etc.). Last I heard no one's killed each other or jumped ship to the competition.

Werner

And there sure are lots of competitors in Toronto tub-thumping for Oscars (oh, excuse me — they're just promoting their films, of course). Every day various ones conduct press conferences that turn into mob scenes, none more crazy than Brad Pitt shilling for "Babel." Such a huge throng of journos and photogs gathered two hours early outside the doors of that event that festival staffers panicked. Quickly, they tore up little sheets of paper and issued numbers scratched hurriedly in black marker. Once the lucky, low-numbered early birds got inside, a wall of photographers shot up and took over, snapping pictures and shouting "Brad! Hey, Brad, look over here!" so loud that print journos couldn't hear what the "Babel" star was babbling. At one point it looked like poor, frustrated Brad mimed his answers in order to communicate in some desperate way with the journos over the mayhem. Or was the paparazzi-stalked celeb just making goofy faces to screw up the photogs' pix?

The paparazzi plus gossip reporters can be found along the red carpets at the film premieres, too, which start late thanks to them: 30 minutes for "Rescue Dawn," 20 minutes for "Catch a Fire." But that's typical. What wasn't typical was what occurred at the "Rescue Dawn" world premiere when Christian Bale and Werner Herzog took their seats and stayed put. They didn't do what I've seen Nicole Kidman and other stars do routinely at their premieres: enter the theater, wave grandly to the audience, take a seat, then, as soon as the lights go down, scoot. No doubt Bale and Herzog stayed put out of respect to those who joined them at the fest: the widow and son of the man depicted in "Rescue," Dieter Dengler, the U.S. fighter pilot who escaped from a Laos prison camp in 1965. He was also the subject of a documentary Herzog directed in 1997 — "Little Dieter Needs to Fly."

Dengler's widow and son were introduced to the audience before the film began, thus adding a powerful punch to the already impressive event. That's what makes being at Toronto so thrilling. Studios do everything they can to showcase their works dramatically at the most important film festival in North America. Nothing else rivals the rank of Toronto in this half of the world, not Sundance, not Telluride, not New York.

And of all special events staged during this fest, none has given me more goosebumps or caused my eyes to wet up so much (I'm a notorious sap) as . . .

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Top photo: South African freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso appears awestruck as he stands in a balcony of the Elgin Theater acknowledging cheers from the crowds who'd just seen his life story depicted powerfully in the world premiere of "Catch a Fire." Middle photo: Paul Sheehan runs camera while I interview "Stranger Than Fiction" director Marc Forster (right). Photo at left: Director Werner Herzog and stars Christian Bale and Jeremy Davies take questions from the audience after the premiere of "Rescue Dawn."
(L.A. Times photos by Tom O'Neil)

. . . last night's world premiere of "Catch a Fire" at the Elgin, Toronto's grandest old theater. It's a gripping pic telling the real story of Patrick Chamusso, a South African black man who became so outraged by the horrors inflicted upon him and family by the Apartheid regime that he made the painful decision to give up his family and join the rebel movement so he could blow up the energy plant where he worked. Actor Derek Luke nails his raw rage and shattered soul so impressively that he's a strong candidate to get the best actor nomination that he should've received for Oscar-gypped "Antwone Fisher." "Catch a Fire" could catch fire in other top Oscar categories, too, including best picture and director (Phillip Noyce, who's also helmed "Rabbit Proof Fence" and "The Quiet American"). The movie is that well made and devastating to watch, especially at the end when Noyce pulls a "Schindler's List" and merges his screen rendition of yesterday with what's real and survives today.

In the last few minutes of "Catch a Fire," in an effectively handled switcheroo, we suddenly meet the contemporary Chamusso, who addresses the audience to tell us the resolution of the last scene depicted in the story and to bring us up to date on what he's done since (he's turned his home into an orphanage) and what he learned from all of it.

The audience was knocked out. They whooped, cheered, wept and whistled as the credits rolled and the house lights did not come up.

Then, suddenly and quite theatrically, an announcer's voice boomed through the dark.

"Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Mr. Patrick Chamusso!"

A spotlight flooded a side balcony above my head where a man stood up and looked out, thunderstruck, at a scene he surely never imagined long ago when he rotted — bruised, bloodied and starved — in an African prison.

The massive crowd cheered him widely, calling out his name, some even jumping up in the air as if trying to touch him on high.

Chamusso appeared emotionless at first, then smiled with amazement and gratitude as tears rolled down his face, finally extinguishing a hell fire he once dared to catch.

Everyone wept in that theater last night. Everyone followed a brave soldier.


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