Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 12:53 UK

Stars and fans ready for Toronto

Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is screening at Toronto

By Tom Brook
Entertainment reporter, BBC News in Toronto

Some of cinema's biggest names are heading to the Toronto film festival, which opens later with the premiere of World War I saga Passchendaele.

Among those expected in Canada's biggest city are Brad Pitt, Keira Knightley, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Renee Zellweger.

Altogether some 250 full-length features will be screened in 10 days, of which 116 will be world premieres.

Matt Damon, Spike Lee and Jennifer Aniston are also due in town.

Toronto rivals Cannes, Berlin and Venice as one of the world's premier festivals. Although Toronto overlaps with Venice, it has forged its own identity.

Traditionally the festival serves as a launching pad for possible Oscar contenders.

Audience-friendly

Derek Luke in Spike Lee's Miracle at St Anna
Spike Lee's Miracle at St Anna is being talked up ahead of Toronto
But this year there is little consensus over which Toronto pictures have Oscar potential, although several films have pre-festival buzz.

Spike Lee's film Miracle at St Anna, a period drama which follows a group of African American soldiers in Italy during World War II, is generating positive word of mouth.

It's seen as an audience-friendly Hollywood picture from a film-maker who has established himself as a maverick outsider.

British director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which tells the story of a young man who appears on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, comes into the festival with a lot of praise following its unveiling last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.

Appaloosa, a Western co-written and directed by Ed Harris, has also garnered pre-festival attention. It's Harris's first directing effort since Pollock in 2000 - and it stars Viggo Mortensen and Renee Zellweger.

'Going bankrupt'

Although the festival is a celebration of film, it takes place at a time of great anxiety in the world of independent cinema, with several distributors and production companies going out of business in the last few months.

Toronto-based film-maker Marsha Cummings, who is seeking funding for a new production venture, said: "It's definitely worrisome when they're closing their doors and going bankrupt."

Many films will leave Toronto without distribution deals, prompting their backers to use their own ingenuity to move their work into cinemas - or to new internet platforms.

Even if the economic climate for selling films is tough, there are several pictures that may have currency because of their shock value.

Bill Maher
Religulous sees satirist Bill Maher criticise organised religion
Among the more controversial is Religulous from film-maker Larry Charles - who directed Borat. It features US political satirist Bill Maher operating Michael Moore-style, interviewing people of all faiths in an attempt to demonstrate that organised religion is a totally irrational phenomenon.

Another work likely to cause distress is The Stoning Of Soraya M - a feature film starring Oscar-nominated Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo.

It shows, almost in real time, an Iranian woman being stoned to death for alleged adultery. The film - inspired by real events - makes clear that the stoning took place even though there was no evidence of any extra-marital affair.

'Hollywood's lapdog'

It appears to be a strong year for British films at the festival. The festival cites 26 films from the UK in the lineup.

But once again the US is one of Toronto's most favoured nations, with 80 selected, many with high-profile premieres.

Some say Toronto has been hijacked by Hollywood, but film critic Philip Martin believes the media is complicit.

"The American press in particular is Hollywood's lapdog," Martin - who is covering the festival for the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette - says.

"We're a branch of the publicity machine and we're going to pay a lot more attention to the bigger name films, the bigger name stars."

Organisers estimate a total of 20,693 minutes of film will have appeared on Toronto screens by the time the festival ends on 13 September, so it could be exhausting for even the hardiest of moviegoers.

But with many screenings are open to the public - in contrast to the likes of Cannes - the "people's festival" should offer something to please most of them.


SEE ALSO
Comedy and drama dominate Toronto
20 Aug 08 |  Entertainment
Eastwood hits back at Lee claims
06 Jun 08 |  Entertainment
Slumdog will close film festival
04 Sep 08 |  Entertainment

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