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Toronto Film Festival is a vehicle for change

Celebrity transformations: Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker try political roles.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Celebrities always are looking to show new sides of themselves, and the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the best showcases for their transformations.

A launching pad for Hollywood's fall releases and awards contenders, the Toronto festival is where Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles in "Ray," Eminem went from rapper to movie star in "8 Mile" and Denzel Washington turned director with "Antwone Fisher."

Transformations highlighting this year's festival, which opens Thursday and runs through Sept. 16, include Sean Penn as a Southern demagogue, Forest Whitaker as an African dictator, Russell Crowe as a romantic lead, former James Bond Pierce Brosnan as a Civil War fugitive, new James Bond Daniel Craig as a cold-blooded murderer and Will Ferrell as a serious actor.

The 31st Toronto festival also offers a huge range of international films, documentaries, independent fare, avant-garde works and movies looking to find theatrical distributors.

"Toronto offers the widest breadth of any of the major festivals," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lionsgate Films, whose 2004 Toronto acquisition "Crash" went on to win the best-picture Academy Award last spring.

The company's lineup at Toronto this time includes the documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," which opens theatrically Sept. 15 and examines the former Beatle's transition to anti-war activist.

The festival opens Thursday night with the Canadian film "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," a saga of native Inuits and their first contact with Europeans.

Along with the John Lennon documentary, Toronto's nonfiction lineup features the musical portrait "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing." Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County, U.S.A.") the documentary traces the furor over the country trio after singer Natalie Maines told a concert audience in 2003, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

A filmmaker accustomed to furor will be on hand. Oscar winner Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11," "Bowling for Columbine") will show a teaser for his health-care indictment "Sicko" and excerpts from another film-in-progress, "The Great '04 Slacker Uprising," following his rabble-rousing travels during the 2004 presidential election.

The festival's biggest political hot potato may be director Gabriel Range's "Death of a President," a documentary-style film chronicling the fictional assassination of President Bush.

Also among the festival's 261 feature-length films: "All the King's Men," with Penn as a firebrand politician in a new adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel; Whitaker as Ugandan despot Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland"; Crowe as a cutthroat investment broker who finds love during a time-out in Provence in "A Good Year"; Ferrell as a tax auditor able to hear a novelist (Emma Thompson) chronicling his imminent demise in "Stranger Than Fiction"; Brosnan as a man on the run from a Confederate officer (Liam Neeson) in "Seraphim Falls"; and Craig as killer Perry Smith in "Infamous," a portrait of Truman Capote's emotionally shattering years spent researching the true-crime novel "In Cold Blood."

Starring Toby Jones as Capote and featuring Sandra Bullock, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sigourney Weaver, "Infamous" follows last year's "Capote," which played at Toronto and won the best-actor Oscar for Philip Seymour Hoffman.

"This sort of thing happens more often than you think in movies, though not so often in the art-house world. Usually, it's two earthquake movies or the two tsunami movies," said "Infamous" director Douglas McGrath. "Rather than have the other film exhaust people's interest, in a very funny way none of us could have predicted, it has stirred up interest. I think people are interested in comparing the two Trumans."

In the wake of acclaim for "Capote," "Infamous" has generated its own early Oscar buzz for Jones' and Craig's performances.

Oscar baitKnown for broad comedy, Ferrell may catch awards attention for "Stranger Than Fiction," in which he gives a restrained performance loaded with pathos.

Toronto presents early looks at other movies angling for Oscar attention, among them the road-trip tale "Bonneville," with Jessica Lange, Joan Allen and Kathy Bates; the culture-clash drama "Breaking and Entering" from director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), starring Jude Law, Juliette Binoche and Robin Wright Penn; and "Little Children," an ensemble suburbia story starring Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly and directed by Todd Field ("In the Bedroom").

"Toronto really is an initial launching pad for the Oscars," said festival co-director Noah Cowan. "If you're feeling pretty solid about your Oscar chances, it's usually a smart move to think about coming to the Toronto film festival."

The Hollywood awards machine also takes a licking in Christopher Guest's comedy "For Your Consideration," featuring himself, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean in the story of actors caught up in the frenzy after their independent movie catches awards buzz.

"It's a small film with a group of journeyman actors, not a very good movie, but rumors start to go around, and it infects them. I look at this as a virus, the way it infects the whole cast," Guest said. "I've known actors who have been told a year before a film came out, `This is it.' That's not really very nice to say that, because what good can come out of that?"