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One gala, Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, has audacity in its favor: the notion that the Beatles' catalog of songs can be used as the anchor for a story about every form of '60s upheaval, including student unrest, race riots, and opposition to the Vietnam War. The connection of the Fab Four from Liverpool to these events in the U.S. is tentative at best. But sometimes that doesn't matter, because Taymor has one of the cinema's most voluptuous visual vocabularies. Her set pieces plunder the medium's resources to create a kaleidoscope of dance, music and psychedelic imagery.
Taymor's wasn't the only weird movie inspired by the music of '60s icons. Todd Haynes' furtive, fascinating I'm Not There, shown in TIFF's Special Presentation offerings, uses six actors to impersonate various aspects of Bob Dylan's personality. At first he's a black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) hopping freight trains and singing Woody Guthrie numbers. Then he's a 20-year-old (British actor Ben Whishaw) spouting tart profundities, or a character in a Dylan biopic (Christian Bale) or the actor (Heath Ledger) who plays that character. In his oddest manifestation he's the gnomic, folk-rock Dylan, and is played by Cate Blanchett an amazing, acute stunt that won Blanchett the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival, and will get her noticed again come Oscar time.
At Toronto, a mere movie is sometimes not enough. We want a show, too. And we get it. After the screening of another political screed Captain Mike Across America, a filmed record of Michael Moore's get-out-the-vote speaking tour of 2004 Moore came out and spoke some more, telling the cheering crowd that he was "not overly thrilled" about the 2008 Democratic presidential hopefuls and that "We should be prepared to say the words 'President Giuliani.' "
Each year on Sept. 11, the festival commemorates the 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. by programming pertinent political documentaries. This time it was Body of War, the powerful biography of paralyzed Iraq vet Tomas Young. At the end of the film the stage was clogged with celebrities: the wheelchaired subject, co-director (and pioneer talk-show host) Phil Donahue and Pearl Jam star Eddie Vedder, who plugged in and sang two antiwar songs. When the flashes from dozens of phone cameras interrupt Vedder's concentration, he gently warns the audience, "Don't make me go all Sean Penn on you."
That's kind of a joke: Vedder is pals with the actor-director and has contributed songs to three Penn movies, including the new Into the Wild, from Jon Krakauer's best-selling, true-life chronicle of a young university graduate who rebelled against his comfortable life by hitch-hiking to Alaska to live alone in the impossible wilder-ness. It's a story of one man's mission, or madness, that takes a while to achieve its final epic grandeur.
A trip to chilly climes reminds tiff-ers that Canada has its own film industry, its own world-class auteurs. Two of them had strong films this year. David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, like his 2005 A History of Violence, is a thriller about a mysterious gunman's impact on an ordinary family this time not in small-town America but in London's Russian diaspora. Viggo Mortensen again lends his icy charisma to the lead role, and Naomi Watts is the lady in distress. The movie has the precision and lingering creepiness of Cronenberg's most distinctive nightmares.
Canada in all its quirky splendor is on offer in My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin's "docu-fantasia" about the Manitoba city he's lived in all his life. A delirious blend of city history, fake facts and family psychodrama (with '40s film-noir scream queen Ann Savage in the role of Maddin's overbearing mother), the movie is strange, scary, poignant, often wildly funny a haunt and a hoot. Even in the clogged schedule of Toronto Festival junkies, My Winnipeg is a movie to remember, and cherish, all winter.
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