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Pedro, Borat, and a castrato

The 31st Toronto International Film Festival
By GERALD PEARY  |  September 20, 2006

PENÉLOPE CRUZ: Mr. Film Culture landed five minutes with the star of Volver.

As usual, dedicated film critics were too occupied seeing four or five movies a day to note the swarm of A-list celebrities at the 31st Toronto International Film Festival, except through newspaper chatter (J-Lo in town with her new husband; Michael Moore cavorting with Yoko Ono), or when the public filled us in. “I waited five hours to see Brad Pitt,” a woman told me, happily, on the subway. “He looked very nice, in a nice suit.” But my Nigerian cabbie was put off that he’d observed Brad and Angelina walking down a street. “They’re very rich,” he snarled, wishing them out of Canada.

Okay, I did see Mena Suvari across a hotel lobby, and Brian De Palma, a film freak, came in and out of movies. But my best chance to meet a bona fide star was to request a formal interview. That’s how I landed five minutes with Spain’s Penélope Cruz, the gorgeously brown-eyed lead in Pedro Almodóvar’s VOLVER. She plays a single mom who opens a restaurant and who covers up for her killer daughter, plot borrowings from Mildred Pierce (1945). Had Almodóvar, a movie buff, required her to study the Joan Crawford melodrama?

“I saw Mildred Pierce on my own,” Cruz said. “He asked me to watch Italian neo-realism: Sophia Loren in Two Women and Anna Magnani in Bellissima and Mamma Roma. He wanted for me that messy look of a woman who does her make-up very quickly in the morning because she’s too tired to put it on right.” Volver includes a clip of Magnani heartbroken on the telephone in Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 L’amore. Cruz: “Magnani’s monologue has a lot of suffering, which is our movie. Though the situations were funny in Volver, we had to forget we were doing comedy and play them absolutely straight. Characters suffer, yet the audience can laugh. Volver is about the ironies of life.”

At Cannes in May, Volver was expected to capture the Palme d’Or. Instead, the winner was Ken Loach’s THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY, with Gillian Murphy as an Irish doctor turned unrepentant IRA militant. Was the Cannes jury misguided? Neither work is a masterpiece. I like the Loach film a little better for its vivid historical re-creations of 1920s Ireland, though the Almodóvar is formally more accomplished and Cruz is swell. But Volver, a women-centered story of mothers and sisters and maybe existing ghosts, is a bit stagnant and musty.

The most popular film at the fest? Larry Charles’s BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN, starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Toronto had “Borat fever,” everyone repeating anti-PC jokes from this divinely silly road movie in which the malaprop-riddled Kazakh crosses stupidly redneck America to find, and forcibly marry, Pamela Anderson. With his Borat and his Camus-spouting Gallic homo in Talladega Nights, Cohen is the new Big Deal of Hollywood comedy.

The best film of Toronto 2006? Jia Zhangke’s STILL LIFE, winner earlier in the week of the Venice Festival’s Golden Lion, snuck into Toronto one late night for its North American premiere. Like all of Jia’s features (Platform, The World, etc.), this is the story of the non-VIP little people who are pushed around and cast away in evolving/devolving post-Communist China. Here, a monosyllabic coal miner goes searching for his runaway wife and child in a crumbling city. It’s being torn down, before our eyes, to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. (In real life, a million Chinese have been uprooted by the flooding of the Yangtze River.)

SLEEPING DOGS LIE: But should Melinda Page Hamilton say with whom?
The best American feature at Toronto? Studio pictures came and went, but the film that stayed with me was SLEEPING DOGS LIE, the scandalous and also unexpectedly sweet American indie written and directed by ex-Boston comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. The premise of the film is unbelievably ballsy, and who will get past it to see the movie? A kindly, pretty, intelligent, all-American girl, Amy, is engaged to an all-US guy. Before their marriage, she has to decide whether to bare her darkest secret: in college, one bored night, she went down on her dog! Yes, a blow job!

Amy is played by the wonderful newcomer Melinda Page Hamilton, who’s as fresh as early Renée Zellweger; she popped up last season on Desperate Housewives as a naughty nun. I asked her how she promotes the film to acquaintances.

“I only tell them it’s about a little sexual episode in my past. To find out what, they have to see the movie.” Her mom, whom she did inform of the kinky plot, was less than elated. “My mother e-mailed me, ‘If you ever want a political career, you should consider your involvement.’ ”

There goes my presidency!

Goldthwait also made that mongrel hit Shakes the Clown (1992), which will be known forever for a wish-I’d-said-that line in Betsy Sherman’s Boston Globe review: “This is the Citizen Kane of alcoholic-clown movies.”

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  Topics: Film Culture , Penelope Cruz , Natalie Maines , Anna Magnani ,  More more >
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