Toronto Film Festival: Spike Lee concert documentary opens scaled-back event

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Special drive-in theatres have been erected in Toronto to host some screenings

A Spike Lee film about Talking Heads front man David Byrne has opened the 2020 Toronto Film Festival, scaled back this year due to coronavirus concerns.

American Utopia, a record of Byrne's 2019 concert show, played at two drive-ins and an open-air cinema on Thursday.

The film was also shown indoors to limited, socially distanced audiences.

Only film fans based in the city are allowed to attend physical screenings at this year's event, which will see many of its offerings screened online.

This year's London Film Festival, which launched its 2020 programme on Tuesday, will use a similar "hybrid" model.

While a typical Toronto Film Festival might boast up to 300 titles, the 2020 edition has just 50 feature films.

There will be no red carpet premieres, with celebrity guests appearing virtually to introduce and discuss their wares.

"We still wanted to do a festival," said Cameron Bailey, Toronto's artistic director and co-head.

"It's important for our audience and I think we just all need some inspiration that art can provide."

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David Byrne performing with his band in Milan in 2018

Critics have praised American Utopia, which shares its name with Byrne's 2018 album and 2019 Broadway show.

Variety called it "playful and entrancing", while the Hollywood Reporter said it was "simply spectacular".

"American Utopia isn't just a concert doc, but also a life-affirming, euphoria-producing, soul-energising sing-along protest film," wrote IndieWire's reviewer.

Screen Daily, meanwhile, said it was "a fitting companion" to Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme's widely praised film of Talking Heads in concert in 1983.

American Utopia will also screen at the New York and London Film Festivals next month ahead of its HBO premiere on 17 October.

Oscars launch pad

Despite being pared down this year, Toronto will still play its customary role as a launch pad for films on the path to potential awards success.

These include Ammonite, a drama about 19th Century fossil hunter Mary Anning starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Last year its director, Francis Lee, defended his decision to suggest Anning might have been involved in a lesbian relationship.

In an interview with Vanity Fair published this week, Winslet said the film was Lee's "interpretation" and was "not supposed to be a biopic".

In the same piece, the British actress expressed regret about her previous collaborations with film-makers Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.

The Oscar-winning star made Carnage with the latter in 2011 and played the lead role in Allen's film Wonder Wheel in 2017.

Allen has been publically accused of sexually abusing daughter Dylan in 1992, claims that have never been proven and he has repeatedly denied.

Polanski has been wanted in the US for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl since the 1970s and has since faced other accusations of sexual assault. His lawyers have "firmly denied" the accusations.

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Kate Winslet with Woody Allen in 2017

"It's unbelievable to me now how those men were held in such high regard, so widely in the film industry and for as long as they were," Winslet is quoted as saying.

"And I have to take responsibility for the fact that I worked with them both. I can't turn back the clock."

Ammonite has its world premiere in Toronto on Friday and will close the London Film Festival on 17 October.

Spike Lee has been due to chair the competition jury at this year's Cannes Film Festival prior to its cancellation.

The director expressed his own regrets about supporting Allen in June, saying he was wrong to have previously called him a "friend".

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