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Sex & Politics Among Eclectic + Contentious Toronto Festival Screenings

Sex research movie Kinsey Liam Neeson Laura LinneyBill Condon’s sex research movie Kinsey with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. Kinsey is one of the Toronto Film Festival’s eclectic – and at times contentious – entries.
  • Toronto Film Festival highlights include: A sex research movie about the life and work of Alfred Kinsey, an updated version of a classic Oscar Wilde comedy, Jean-Luc Godard’s latest feature, and a sidebar dedicated to African cinema.
  • Update: The Toronto festival is having its share of politics and controversies, including a documentary about the Vietnam War military service of Democratic U.S. presidential contender John Kerry and another about the horrific abuse of a cat.

Toronto Film Festival offerings range from Kinsey-focused sex research movie to laudatory John Kerry documentary

This year’s edition of the Toronto Film Festival, which runs Sept. 9–18, will be showcasing a vast and eclectic array of topics – 321 features and shorts from 61 countries – including some controversial (male-focused) sex research, U.S. presidential contender John Kerry’s Vietnam War exploits, and Jean-Luc Godard’s political meditations.

Also: an Oscar Wilde social critique, singer/actor Bobby Darin’s life and times, female genital mutilation in tribal Africa, the spread of AIDS in South Africa, and the personal and professional woes of a temperamental British stage actress.

Toronto’s People’s Choice Award winner – generally a good predictor of awards season esteem – will be announced near the end of the festival. (Update: See Toronto’s winners further below.)

Sex research movie for adults

The male-focused sex research – featuring a bit of male nudity and, apparently, a not inconsiderable amount of same-sex lust and obsession – is bound to become one of Toronto’s highlights: screenwriter-director Bill Condon’s U.S.-made biopic Kinsey, in which Northern Irish performer Liam Neeson plays New Jersey-born biologist/sexologist Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956), a controversial and revolutionary figure whose 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male shocked, horrified, and outraged post-World War II moralists in the United States and elsewhere.

In Kinsey, Condon traces the difficult personal and professional journey of the title character and his sex research partners, both in the lab and in bed. Also in the big-name cast:

  • Best Actress Oscar nominee Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me, 2000) as Clara Kinsey (née McMillen), Alfred Kinsey’s wife and unofficial collaborator.
  • Chris O’Donnell as Kinsey’s official collaborator Wardell Pomeroy.
  • Peter Sarsgaard as another collaborator, Clyde Martin, who also happened to be Kinsey’s sometime sex partner.
  • Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People, 1980) as official sex research collaborator no. 3, Paul Gebhard, later on the director of the Kinsey Institute.
  • Plus Oliver Platt, Tim Curry, Dylan Baker, Katharine Houghton (Katharine Hepburn’s niece), and two-time Oscar nominees John Lithgow and Lynn Redgrave.
A Good Woman Helen Hunt Mark UmbersA Good Woman with Helen Hunt and Mark Umbers. In this film version of Oscar Wilde’s comedy, Hunt stars in the role previously played by Irene Rich (Lady Windermere’s Fan), Lil Dagover (Lady Windermeres Fächer), and Madeleine Carroll (The Fan).

Oscar Wilde & All About Eve precursor + Jean-Luc Godard & Bobby Darin

More Toronto Film Festival offerings:

  • Mike Barker’s A Good Woman is a 1930 Amalfi Coast-set adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 comedy of manners Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About a Good Woman, with Best Actress Oscar winner Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets, 1997) as the title character’s worldly, amoral mother. Also in the cast: Scarlett Johansson, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Mark Umbers.
  • Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1937 novel Theatre, István Szabó’s Being Julia stars Annette Bening as late 1930s London stage diva Julia Lambert – a more explosively self-centered version of Bette Davis’ Broadway star Margo Channing (seen in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 Best Picture Oscar winner All About Eve). Also in the big-name cast: Jeremy Irons, Shaun Evans, Bruce Greenwood, and veterans Miriam Margolyes, Michael Gambon, Rosemary Harris, and Rita Tushingham.
  • Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Notre Musique, is divided into three segments along the lines of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: “Hell,” featuring a war-and-carnage montage; “Purgatory,” with Godard as himself, headed to an arts conference in Sarajevo, where he meets with a variety of people and where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key topic of discussion; and “Heaven,” a brief conclusion featuring one of the conference attendees.
  • The Kevin Spacey-directed Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea stars the two-time Oscar winner (The Usual Suspects, 1995; American Beauty, 1999) as the 1950s/1960s pop idol and Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee (Captain Newman, M.D., 1963) who died at age 37 in 1973. Also in the cast: Kate Bosworth as Darin’s wife and sometime co-star Sandra Dee (Come September, If a Man Answers, That Funny Feeling).

Toronto politics & controversies

Sept. 13 update: Leaving aside media-engendered uproars surrounding Charlize Theron’s no-show and Kevin Spacey’s “show” sporting a dyed scalp, the 2004 Toronto Film Festival has been the site of a handful of political and social commotions.

The documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, for one, has created a bit of a stir. Directed by George Butler (Pumping Iron) and loosely based on Douglas Brinkley’s book Tour of Duty, Going Upriver offers a laudatory glimpse into U.S. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam War military service and his subsequent role in the anti-war movement.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Butler eulogized his subject: “I truly believed the moment I saw him: This guy’s going to be president. Nothing in the intervening years has changed my view. He had real bearing, he had a presence. It was beyond his years even then.”

John Kerry Vietnam War documentary Going UpriverJohn Kerry and his Vietnam War days are revisited in Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, in which filmmaker George Butler offers a flattering portrayal of his longtime friend and current U.S. Democratic presidential candidate.

South-of-the-border anti-John Kerry backlash?

Perhaps hoping for the sort of topical controversy that has catapulted Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 to the top of the box office charts, Butler also remarked, “In 1965, a thousand people had died in Vietnam. In 2004, as of last week, a thousand people had died in Iraq. … Overwhelmingly, this film’s metaphorical purpose is to remind people what they might be getting into in Iraq. The errors of it and the parallels just seem very striking.”

Unsurprisingly, some are expecting a backlash to some degree or other once Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry opens commercially south of the (Canadian) border.

Now, it remains unclear whether the Going Upriver to-do will erupt as a result of Butler’s rosy view of Kerry, his comparing Iraq to Vietnam, or because – in the quote above – the filmmaker failed to include as “people” the 10,000+ Iraqis who have died since the beginning of the American-led invasion.

Update: In fall 2004, there was indeed quite a bit of an uproar connected to a John Kerry documentary. The culprit, however, was the anti-Kerry Stolen Honor – and its announced (later cancelled) pre-election airing on stations owned by the far-right Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Lastly, despite Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and the non-cinematic Iraq War disaster, John Kerry lost his White House bid to Republican George W. Bush, one of the most ardent proponents of this latest West Asian conflagration.

Animal torture horror

Also at Toronto, Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat has drawn protests against – and lots of free publicity for – a documentary about three Canadian men who, as reported on CNN, in May 2001 videotaped their hanging a stray cat from a noose, and then proceeding to “slit its throat, before beating, disemboweling and skinning” the cat, posthumously named Kensington by animal-rights activists.

Director Zev Asher’s documentary doesn’t show the savage 17-minute cat-slaughtering video, which was supposed to have been “an artistic experiment” intended to highlight society’s hypocrisy in regard to the killing of animals for human consumption.

The three animal torturers/murderers – Jesse Power, Anthony Wennekers, and Matt Kaczorowski – were later sentenced to jail time. It’s unclear how long they’ve actually served.

Glorification of deranged cat murderers?

In reply to accusations that Casuistry glorifies the killers, Toronto Film Festival co-director Noah Cowan defended the film’s screening, stating: “People who have viewed the film – and that includes several Toronto journalists and our curators – indicate that it certainly does not allow room to sympathize with the actions of the convicted criminals portrayed in the documentary and shows them to be morally bankrupt.”

In the New York Times, reviewer Dana Stevens writes that animal torturer Jesse Power comes across as “a more complex figure [than his two bloodthirsty partners], an intelligent and well-spoken but possibly psychopathic art student.”

Stevens adds that although Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat “clearly takes the position that the animal’s death was a crime, Mr. Asher’s film is likely to leave viewers eager to discuss the limits of artistic freedom and the extension of human rights to animals.”

Rumors that the three animal torturers/murderers’ next artistic experiment will be a short video protesting capital punishment in which each of them will execute himself by hanging, electrocution, and asphyxiant gas are absolutely – and, some might add, unfortunately – untrue.

Crash 1996 David Cronenberg movie Holly HunterCrash 1996 with Holly Hunter. Reviewers weren’t exactly ecstatic about David Cronenberg’s drama tying together sexual desire and car accidents; yet Crash was Cannes’ Special Jury Prize winner, an announcement greeted with some loud boos.

Crash title battle: David Cronenberg vs. Paul Haggis

As for the controversy surrounding Paul Haggis’ Crash, that’s a direct consequence of the fact that the generally well-received, Los Angeles-set race drama shares the same title – but not the same plot – as the 1996 David Cronenberg movie (based on J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel) about car accidents, mutilations, and kinky sex.

According to the Toronto Star, those behind Cronenberg’s work are now threatening to take legal action against the producers of the new Crash.

Besides winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize, the 1996 Crash was awarded six Genies (the Canadian Oscars), including two for director-screenwriter Cronenberg. (Incongruously, the Best Film was John Greyson’s Lilies.)

By the way, the 2004 Crash director and co-screenwriter Paul Haggis also wrote Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, which opens later this year.

Ousmane Sembene tackles female genital mutilation + landmark Black Girl revisited

In other Toronto Film Festival news, African cinema – usually ignored in most of the world – has been the focus of the Planet Africa sidebar, comprising five features and eight shorts.

One notable entry is veteran Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene’s most recent film, Moolaadé, a multi-country (Senegal, France, Burkina Faso, etc.) production about a Burkina Faso village woman fighting to save local girls from the horror of genital mutilation (a.k.a. “female circumcision”). The title refers to the magical “spell” the villager uses to protect the girls.

Initially known for his literary output, Sembene became a world-renowned filmmaker following the release of his landmark 1966 drama Black Girl / La Noire de …, believed to be the first feature by a sub-Saharan African director to be screened internationally. Black Girl is another Toronto 2004 presentation.

The story of a Senegalese woman (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) hired as a maid in France, Black Girl is described as a parable about colonialism and independence. The original French-language title sounds like a pun on Max Ophüls’ 1953 classic The Earrings of Madame de… / Madame de…, starring Danielle Darrieux as the surnameless “Madame.”

First commercial Zulu-language feature

In addition, Toronto is offering a closer look at South African cinema. The features in the sidebar “South Africa: Ten Years Later” (i.e., since the end of apartheid) are the following:

  • Darrell Roodt’s AIDS drama Yesterday, in which the title character (Leleti Khumalo) comes down with the disease after having contracted HIV from her husband. Yesterday is reportedly the first commercial feature shot in the Zulu language.
  • Tom Hooper’s Red Dust, starring Oscar-winning U.S. actress Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999) as an attorney representing a South African politician and torture victim (British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor). Needless to say, this Red Dust is totally unrelated to MGM’s 1932 hit starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
  • Mark Bamford’s dramatic comedy Cape of Good Hope, about a trio of female dog rescue center workers – one white (Debbie Brown), one black (Nthati Moshesh), one Muslim/South Asian (Quanita Adams) – and their men problems.
  • Ian Gabriel’s apartheid-themed drama Forgiveness, in which an ex-cop (The Mummy actor Arnold Vosloo) must come to terms with his blood-soaked past.
  • Zola Maseko’s Drum, based on the life of investigative journalist Henry Nxumalo (played by U.S. actor Taye Diggs).

Rwandan genocide drama wins People’s Choice Award

Sept. 19 update: Based on the real-life story of a Kigali hotel manager credited with the saving of hundreds of lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide that left hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis and “moderate” Hutus dead, Terry George’s Anglo-Italian-South African drama Hotel Rwanda has won the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award. U.S. actor Don Cheadle stars as Hutu hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina; British actress Sophie Okonedo plays his Tutsi wife.

As a consequence of its Toronto win – and its now well-publicized similarities to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Best Picture Oscar winner Schindler’s ListHotel Rwanda is now a potential favorite this upcoming awards season.

Brad McGann’s In My Father’s Den, a New Zealand production about a war journalist (Matthew Macfadyen) returning to his isolated hometown, took home the International Film Critics’ FIPRESCI prize.

Pete Travis’ Omagh, about the relatives of victims of the bloodiest terrorist attack in Northern Ireland’s 30-year sociopolitical/religious conflict, won Toronto’s Discovery Award.

Lastly, Michael Dowse’s comedy It’s All Gone Pete Tong and Daniel Roby’s horror movie White Skin won the Canadian film prizes.

“Sex & Politics” endnotes

Toronto Film Festival official website.

Liam Neeson and Laura Linney Kinsey image: Fox Searchlight.

Helen Hunt and Mark Umbers A Good Woman image: Lionsgate.

John Kerry Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry image: ThinkFilm.

Holly Hunter Crash 1996 image: The Movie Network | Telefilm Canada.

“Sex & Politics Among Eclectic + Contentious Toronto Festival Screenings” last updated in September 2021.

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