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Thursday, September 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Toronto festival: Wine, women, time and space

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

"Sideways" cast members raise a toast. From left are: Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Paul Giamatti.
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TORONTO — Some movies arrive at the Toronto International Film Festival like unknown ingenues hoping to be discovered; others are more like eagerly awaited stars. Two American comedies, both bowing here earlier this week, fall into the latter category.

Alexander Payne's marvelously funny and poignant road movie, "Sideways," will cause you never to look at pinot noir in exactly the same way again. Paul Giamatti, as failed novelist/wine snob/borderline alcoholic Miles, delivers a lyrical, late-night speech about the wine ("It's haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle") to a glowing Virginia Madsen, and the moment is magical — not least because he's really talking about something else.

Both a comedy of errors and tale of middle-age angst, "Sideways" follows buddies Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who still thinks he's dashing, and Miles, who knows he's not, through a trail of wine, women and self-realization in the California wine country. It's the first excursion out of Nebraska for Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (the two previously collaborated for "Citizen Ruth," "Election" and "About Schmidt"), and it hits all the right notes, getting warm applause at an early-morning press screening. (Pity no pinot noir was available.)

David O. Russell, who belongs with Payne on any short list of great American directors working today, is here with "I [Heart] Huckabees," referred to by festivalgoers as "that Huckabee thing," which I guess is what directors who put bumper-sticker symbols in the titles of their movies deserve. Whatever you want to call it, "Huckabees" is a kick, a screwy screwball about time, space and existential conundrums, performed by a cast who seem to be having the time of their lives (particularly Jason Schwartzman, looking pale and determined, and a purring Lily Tomlin). Asked a question, Isabelle Huppert answers "Yes. No." in a perfect deadpan, which kind of sums up the film. Good, talky fun.

The hopefuls

"Sideways" and "Huckabees," with directors and many cast members on hand, are getting splashy rollouts for their theatrical releases later this fall. Other films are here in the hopes of finding theatrical distribution. Sally Potter's bold "Yes," a lyrical, post-Sept. 11 love story told entirely in verse (starring Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian, and the brilliant, brittle-voiced Shirley Henderson), appears on the verge of landing a U.S. distributor.

And writer/director Alice Wu, a former Seattleite, hit the jackpot for a first-time filmmaker: Her romantic comedy "Saving Face" was picked up over the weekend by Sony Pictures Classics. The story of a young Chinese-American lesbian and her very traditional mother, it's a charmer of a film, with a screenplay that keeps taking us in unexpected directions. Joan Chen gives a wonderfully vulnerable central performance as the mother.

Now playing

Toronto International Film Festival, runs through Saturday. For information, go to See the Northwest Life section Monday for a festival wrap-up. Go to for past articles.

The scene

Festival schmoozing continues at full speed, with the local papers full of advice on where to find the visiting celebs (Nick Nolte, reportedly, was spotted at the Calvin Klein Underwear store on Bloor Street). The Inter-Continental Hotel remains the place to see and be seen, with dozens of films centering their press activity there and publicists flitting between in and out of the lobby like well-dressed moths.

As I sat there the other day, awaiting an interview, a surreal scene took place: Five exquisite young women, all with flowing hair and expensively skimpy outfits, walked across the lobby as one, giggling and smiling. Heads turned, conversations stopped, and for a moment it was if the world had suddenly become a shampoo commercial, in slow-motion. At the center of the phalanx was Kate Bosworth, the blond star of "Beyond the Sea," who's even more gorgeous in person — and who certainly has the most well-coiffed entourage I've ever seen.

Stranger than fiction?

Back in the reel world, some fine documentaries have been unspooling during the festival. One of the most talked-about is certainly Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation," made for $218 on a home computer, in which the young filmmaker takes the shards of his troubled life and makes heartbreaking art from it, creating a love letter for his mentally ill mother. Though their life stories are horrific, the film achieves transcendence — it's a pop-culture collage of home movie and video clips, in which the broken pieces come together to form the most unexpected of valentines.

"The 10th District Court, Moments of Trials," from the French documentarian Raymond Depardon, is also made of bits and pieces: in this case, of hearings in a Paris courtroom, presided over by a dry, no-nonsense judge. It's filmed very simply, without narrative embellishment, and the stories are as riveting as any drama. A young woman, in court to discuss a domestic-violence case, says of her abusive boyfriend, "He still beats me in my dreams."

And "Double Dare," from Amanda Micheli, is an entertaining look at stuntwomen in Hollywood, focusing on Jeannie Epper, a now-sixtysomething pioneer who still does stunts, and young Zoe Bell, formerly Lucy Lawless' double on "Xena: Warrior Princess," now trying to find her way in a business that's as dangerous as it is unforgiving.

Minding manners

Screenings are unfolding with TIFF's usually top-notch efficiency and politeness. By now we all know the ropes: Wait patiently in the cordoned-off lines, sign in, show your pass and be sure to collect a tiny slip of paper from "the slip volunteer" if you need to leave the theater (so you won't get counted twice upon your return). I had an especially sweet slip volunteer yesterday, who smiled angelically as I tried to return the slip to her. "Oh, why don't you keep it," she said, and I felt as if I'd been given a gift.

Pity not everyone is so well-mannered. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported a telling incident Saturday, during which a festival visitor made quite a fuss about not getting into a press/industry screening of "Enduring Love."

"I am industry!" he reportedly shouted at volunteers, irate upon seeing a line of people who also hoped to get in, "And they are just ... the public!" A publicist, trying to calm him, said, "Sir, they are not the public," and, remembering her manners, added hastily, "not that there's anything wrong with the public." Indeed.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725


Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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