In fact, except maybe for Kevin Spacey’s movie executive character in Swimming With Sharks, I’ve never seen any Hollywood pasha recoil at the idea of riding in an elevator with plain folks. And I’ve been in a lot of elevators with a lot of movie stars. I’ve even seen Uma Thurman cry in one. Not sure why she was crying, though. Speaking of Spacey, he was at this year’s Toronto Film Festival to share his personal journey regarding the making of Beyond The Sea, about singer Bobby Darin. Spacey plays the bobby sox crooner and sings in his own voice. He revealed that he’s even going to take his show on the road and has booked dates in a number of cities to sing the songs Darin made famous; hits like Mack The Knife. As a child, Spacey idolized Darin. Anyway, how close can you get to Sean Penn without actually knowing him? THISCLOSE. That’s how crowded the elevators are at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto during the annual rite of cinematic passage known as the Toronto International Film Festival. This year’s event, the 29th, was as smooth-sailing an event as I’ve attended. Oh, I’m sure there were behind-the-scene mishaps and fits of pique, but from my vantage point, it was a pleasant experience. Only one movie truly disappointed me and there was one other during which I sat wondering why I had chosen it, only to remember that it had fit my schedule perfectly. Another of my choices thoroughly surprised me. This year’s festival had a slate of 328 films, 253 of them features, which are considered movies that last more than 50 minutes. 207 of the entries were premieres (that’s 82 per cent). According to the festival’s press releases, of those 207, one hundred were world premieres, twenty-six were international premieres (which I guess is somehow different from a world premiere), and 81 were North American premieres. 146 of the movies were in languages other than English, with 61 nations contributing to the festival. Very few of the movies had car crashes and bursts of machine gun fire.

As for the aforementioned Mr. Penn, he created a stir at his press conference when he noted that President George W. Bush would soon top Osama bin Laden as a mass murderer. Penn noted that bin Laden killed 3000 people with his assaults in New York and Washington, D.C. and Bush was already responsible for the deaths of 1000 U.S. military personnel. He didn’t factor in Iraqi and other nationalities, which is what made Penn’s comment a tad convoluted. But he said it, thus the buzz at the festival. Penn was in Toronto to publicize his acting in The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, a film that was well-received and will eventually open wide in the United States.

Star sightings are always a factor at the festival. As I was exiting the building that houses the Varsity Cinemas (where the press corps sees most of their movies), I held the door open for the person behind me, who turned out to be actor Danny Glover. And one of my favorite lines was Warren Beatty’s comment about his wife Annette Bening, who was in town with Being Julia, which opened the festival. He noted that he was there to support his wife, to which he added: “I just like looking at her.” Why not? Ms. Bening is beautiful and since I’ve interviewed her in the past one-on-one (for The American President), I can tell you that she’s also delightful, smart, and terrifically funny. Orlando Bloom worked the ropes, signing autographs, and it’s when teen idols like him are around that you realize the connection between girl power and box office. The screams from his adoring fans almost curdle the blood. Bloom was at the festival to promote Haven, a little independent movie from the Cayman Islands about lost youth and the illusion that the Caribbean region is all sun and sand. The film is quite interesting. Screenwriter-director Frank E. Flowers uses an innovative style to tell his story about problems facing these small island nations. Wherever movie stars gather, you know there will be politics and sex, both of which always get a glad hand at Toronto and this year was no exception. Two of the best movies I saw touched on one or the other of these themes. The Motorcycle Diaries is a remarkably clear-eyed feature about a very complex man, Ernesto Che Guevara. It’s directed by Walter Salles and stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the Marxist revolutionary who dreamed of a unified Latin America, from the northern Mexican border to the tip of the Andes.

The film touches on the nine-month adventure a twenty-something Guevara and his best friend Alberto Granada took through South America, a journey that colored Guevara’s thinking and forged his principles. Guevara was one month away from graduating from medical school (his field was leprosy) and Granada was a biochemist. The movie is based on the books The Motorcycle Diaries (by Guevara) and Traveling With Che Guevara (by Granada) and tells its story in straight-forward fashion. There is nothing fancy on screen; just two men, bonded by a tight friendship who wanted to see some of the world, meet new people, and share an experience. What they learned was a revelation to them about poverty and human misery. Simplistic to the nth degree, Salles’ film (written by Jose Rivera) relies on the acting comaraderie between Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna to hold your interest. I learned things about Guevara that I did not know, always a good result of going to the movies. Sex was omnipresent in festival films and P.S. is a commanding feature that stars Laura Linney as a Columbia University admissions official who beds a potential student, played by Topher Grace. Let me write something about Linney. She is a sensationally good actress. She’s gotten fine reviews in her past films (Primal Fear, The Truman Show, Tales Of The City, Searching For Bobby Fischer, Mystic River, You Can Count On Me, etc.), and frankly, along with Joan Allen, ranks as one of the best screen performers in the business. The story line for P.S. is basic, but the movie is so much more. Based on Helen Schulman’s novel of the same name, it’s directed by Dylan Kidd (his second feature; his first was the very good Roger Dodger). Kidd and Schulman co-wrote the movie’s tight screenplay. Linney’s character moves through life going through the motions. There are minor family complications (with Paul Rudd as her brother and Lois Smith as her mother) that don’t overwhelm the main thrust of the story. Her ex-husband (Gabriel Byrne) is a generous intellectual and her best friend (Marcia Gay Harden) is a jealous needy sort. Both have serious sex issues. The movie concentrates on the energy and wonder and confusion and mystery of the relationship between Linney and Grace, a solid young actor who brings the right amount of eagerness and nervousness to the relationship. What’s especially superb about P.S. is the focus on the Linney character’s power as both a woman and as a university official. The film never dawdles over unimportant factors and never squeezes the worst kind of melodrama from the explosive situation. It has a point-of-view about passion that is refreshing. A person doesn’t have to be lonely and sex doesn’t have to be tawdry. P.S. is a good one. As for the Academy Awards, if Linney isn’t nominated for her role, it’s time to shut down the program.

Linney is also in Kinsey, a biographical picture about Alfred Kinsey. Liam Neeson plays the human sexual behavior pioneer. Linney plays Kinsey’s free-spirited wife Clara. There’s huge Oscar talk about this movie as well, which worries Neeson, who may get a best actor nomination. At the film’s press conference, he said that he thinks “the movie’s jinxed already because of the Oscar buzz. Irish are superstitious, you know.” Linney humorously noted that it’s “better than people saying it’s terrible. I’ll take it over people saying, ‘God, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.’ It’s very flattering. Very nice. Will it happen? Who knows? It’s early in the season. I think what’s important is that it’s a good movie and that’s just cause for celebration.”

Director Bill Condon, who also wrote the screenplay for Kinsey, said that he became interested in Kinsey following the release of two major biographies of him in the 1990s. Kinsey unleashed a firestorm with is 1948 study Sexual Behavior In The Human Male and his 1954 follow-up about females. Of Kinsey’s importance, Condon remarked that “we all owe a tremendous debt to him. There’s a direct line from the books he published to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and to a lot of the freedoms that we enjoy today. It’s odd how many people, when you mention him [Kinsey], think of Masters and Johnson and think of other people who have come after him. But he’s a forgotten figure. So I’m hoping that this movie can shed new light on him.”

Neeson talked about what made him accept the part in the sexually-charged movie, which includes adult content, myriad stark images of both male and female sexuality, and full frontal nudity from co-star Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Kinsey’s main researcher and occasional lover, Clyde Martin. Said Neeson about Kinsey, “I just got off on the man’s energy. I just love people with that kind of energy. Of course, he was a workaholic and he worked himself to death. That’s the reality. But every second was lived and researched, after Kinsey got inspired to start his campaign. I’m a lazy slob myself, so I admire people like that; who burn the candle at both ends. Seize the day. That inspired me.” I saw a number of movies at the festival and the one that made me wish I had chosen something else was L’Intrus (The Intruder), a French film by director Claire Denis. It had something to do with an elderly gent who lives on the border between France and Switzerland but might have had links to a horse trainer, Russian gangsters, and woodland hoodoo voodoo; not to mention cardiology and a women with a gazillion moles on her face. Half the time the thing made no sense and the other half it fascinated because the movie is breathtaking to look at. True, pure Cinemascope in gorgeous color. And there isn’t much dialogue; Denis, who made Chocolat (a feature with alleged charms I easily resisted) tells her story leanly and meanly, but it just wasn’t a very alluring story.

I was pleasantly surprised by Shadows Of Time, a contemporary romantic drama set in India and directed by German filmmaker Floran Gallenberger. The movie follows a young boy and girl (street children) who work in a rug factory. The fellow buys his way out of the sweat-shop and eventually becomes comfortably well-off selling rugs to Europeans. But he always remembers the young girl and often has spent time searching for her as an adult. His life has changed (he’s in a cold marriage), but his dream of crossing paths with the girl he really adores never dies. The film passes through a number of decades but remains intimate and solidly powerful. There’s emotion and hope and it’s the absolute best reason for going to a film festival. Discovery is a great thing.

The movie that disappointed me was Eros. Thoroughly disappointed me. It’s a compilation film by three important directors, Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni. I was excited to see it because of the Antonioni factor. He is one of my favorite directors and you can’t call yourself a film person if you haven’t at least seen his L’Avventura, Red Desert, and Blow-Up, not to mention La Notte and Zabriskie Point. Antonioni was born in 1912 so he’s 92 years old and that he is still making movies is joyful news.

Unfortunately, Eros is a dud. Neither of the three episodes about sexual obsession that make up the feature had any spark. All were unimaginative, flatly directed with uninteresting writing. The Wong Kar-wai piece (in color) was the better of the three as it had a nice look, but the dull tale of a courtesan and her tailor wasn’t stylized enough. Soderbergh’s silly contribution, in black and white, featured Robert Downey, Jr. visiting a shrink, Alan Arkin, who makes paper airplanes while Downey talks about an erotic dream he had about a ravishing woman. Utterly inane. As for Antonioni’s contribution (also in color), well, it had vibrant cinematography. The director returns to his oft-told theme of a young couple who argue more than they make love. The guy is attracted to a mystery woman and he hopes that this attraction will help solve the problems in his relationship. Antonioni has a knack for revealing alienation in perfect images, but in this effort it’s all to no avail. I know, I know, the man’s 92-years old; give him a break, cut him some slack. Believe me, I wish I could, but I can’t.

Love, pain, and the whole darn thing was better shown in An Italian Romance, a romance set in Fascist Italy. Directed by Carlo Mazzacurati, this is a superb adult story about love and passion and missed opportunities. The man is a very handsome banker, married with a child, who finds he cannot stop thinking about a former friend, an attractive beautician. His heart still belongs to her. When their paths cross on a train in 1936, old memories win out. As the movie progresses through time and into the dangers of World War II, the gloriously photographed work grips you. The illicit, often tempestuous love the couple has for each other makes for an engaging drama. There is rich period detail and wonderful performances by Stefano Accorsi and Maya Sansa. Director Mazzacurati knows how to both build tension and deliver exquisite cinematic poetry. This is the kind of epic foreign language film that deserves a huge international audience. I hope it finds it’s way across the Atlantic.

An Italian Romance was the last movie I saw at this year’s festival and it made for a pleasant drive home. While I certainly understand that there are movies that will disappoint (oh that Eros), it’s nice to have good memories of the festival along for the ride.

By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

It’s not true. When movie stars – you know, those special someones whose entire world seems to exist in a rarified air – are about to get on an elevator, they don’t have “their people” clear the space, whisking away mere mortals who shouldn’t dare to presume they can ride up a few floors with anyone other than a bellman and a few curmudgeonly entertainment reporters.