By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 8, 2007 at 8:27AM
Catherine Keener was heading to Toronto to perform promo chores on Sean Penn's survival tale Into the Wild, which built good buzz out of Telluride. Bill Maher slept soundly in the row ahead of me; he's joining director Larry Charles (Borat) to talk up their documentary Religulous, in which Maher interviews various folks around the world about God and religion. Ziggy Kozlowski and Rebecca Fischer of Block/Korenbrot PR sat behind me with a hunky young actor from Paul Haggis's anti-Iraq pic In the Valley of Elah, Jake McLauglin. Warner's exec Kevin McCormick was thrilled that Brad Pitt won Best Actor out of Venice for The Assassination of Jesse James. (Lust, Caution grabbed the big prize.) Does it help? It can't hurt. Jesse James debuted in Toronto Saturday night. (Here's the Toronto Star review.) Brad Pitt and George Clooney did back to back press conferences Saturday.
At the press check-in at the Sutton Hotel, Toronto chum Martin Knelman offered me a ticket for the gala screening of David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. So I changed into a proper suit at my digs at the tres chic Hotel Le Germain, which is just two blocks from Roy Thomson Hall.
Cronenberg kissed each cast member on the stage, from Vincent Cassel and Naomi Watts to Viggo Mortensen. They all give strong performances, along with Armin Muhler-Stahl, but Mortensen dominates in a charismatic star turn in this tonally dark Grand Guignol tale about the London Russian mafia. There's humor, and in-your-face violence--there's a brilliant set piece set in a steam bath where Mortensen, whose lean muscled body is covered with tattoos, fights to the death with no clothes on. But I'm a tad tired of Cassel playing the same old the feckless drunkard lout. Todd McCarthy raves.
This is yet another movie about people trying to hang on to their humanity and morality in the face of a darkly corrupt world. And it's another case, like Michael Clayton or The Brave One (two films generating widely divergent responses) where the movie keeps the audience guessing as to the morality of its central character. Eastern Promises is more complex and challenging than Cronenberg's A History of Violence, which I thought was perfect, so Focus can't be expecting enormous want-to-see on this. Hope I'm wrong.
The annual Sony sit-down dinner at the Cumberland courtyard is always a civilized way to catch up with friends and meet new people--last year I fell in love with The Lives of Others Star Ulrich Muhe, who is no longer with us. This year Sony celebrates their record nine movies here. Scribe-turned-director Robin Swicord confessed to some opening night jitters ahead of The Jane Austen Book Club's public premiere Sunday night; producer John Calley and husband Nick Kazan offered support, along with cast members Kathy Baker, Jimmy Smits, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace and Kevin Zegers. The movie should play well for women who read.
Listening to Rex Reed talk shop is a hoot. So far he's high on Foster's The Brave One and down on Clooney's Michael Clayton, and absolutely refuses to go see Julie Taymor's Across the Universe (I talk to Taymor here), on the grounds that she's a theater, not film director. That POV amazes me. All three films should be checked out, because clearly, everyone reacts to them differently. According to David Poland, the indefatigable Roger Ebert is clocking four or so flicks a day.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]