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Toronto FF Embraces the difficult

While the Toronto International Film Festival, which starts this Thursday, does embrace its valuted position as a a prime launching pad for films with "awards season" ambitions, this year's program contains a number of high profile films that can only be classified as "difficult". Perhaps the Festival alchemy can transform these audience-challenging films into something that has "must see" buzz, but the Festival is to commended for attempting to showcase films of tough integrity that may not ultimately connect with a wide audience.

A case in point is Pride And Glory, a New York City police drama that will be shown as an Evening Gala. Despite a high-voltage cast that includes Colin Farrell and Edward Norton, the film was shot more than two years ago and kept appearing and then being dropped off of the New Line Cinema release roster. Aside from the merits of the film itself, directed by Gavin O'Connor (Miracle), it will be one of the first detailed demonstration of how well Warner Brothers can do with a film that is more independent in nature. The corporate company recently absorbed New Line Cinema and it remains to be seen if the big studio distribution brass will know how to do the hand-holding release that such a film will require. We will know by the end of next week what this film's chances could be for its scheduled late October release.

Another Gala also faces a tough road. The Lucky Ones is a bittersweet film about returning Iraq veterans, with Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams and Michael Pena in the lead roles. The film has also been ready for some time, but U.S. distributors Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions have also moved the film's release several times in the past year. Now slated for a late September opening, the film has the added burden of coming on the heels of several similarly-themed box office failures, including Stop-Loss, Redacted and In the Valley of Elah. Despite a growing discontent about the U.S. role in the Iraq War, these films failed to find a substantial audience, to the point that Iraq-themed films (both fiction and documentaries) have been deemed the "kiss of death" by various industry pundits. In fact, it has been reported that The Lucky Ones does not even mention the word "Iraq" in its marketing materials, although the war infuses every scene.

For other reasons, two films that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival also will have an uphill battle in wooing large audiences. Toronto will present the North American premieres of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che (with a total running time of over 4 hours) and the wildly surrealistic Synecdoche, New York, by iconoclastic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

Che, the story of revolutionary Che Guevera, has been re-edited and shortened (a little) since Cannes, but still does not have a firm U.S.distributor in place. Plans to release the film in two parts in six month intervals is a lot for a distributor to swallow, particularly if Part One does not perform at the box office. A distributor announcement is expected during Toronto, but this still remains a challenge for any company, despite Soderbergh's credentials and the award-worthy performance by Benicio del Toro in the lead role.

Synecdoche, New York (with perhaps the most unintelligible film title of the year) apparently has also had extensive retooling, since it left Cannes without a distributor. However, over the summer, arthouse specialty distributor Sony Pictures Classics announced that they would release the film (for a much smaller price tag than the film asked for in Cannes).

Miracle At St. Anna certainly has an impressive pedigree, being an adaptation of a well-known novel directed by iconic auteur Spike Lee, but its almost all-black cast and World War II setting might hinder widespread audience acceptance. While the story of the all-black fighting unit certainly deserves historical attention, many audience members (who have resolutely avoided films on the Iraq War like the plague) might feel that they had their fill with World War II battle films, following Clint Eastwood's double-header last year of Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.

Whatever may happen for these films at the Festival or in their subsequent releases, the Toronto International Film Festival should be commended for not going for the mainstream and indeed embracing the difficult.

Sandy Mandelberger, Toronto FF Dailies Editor
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