By William Wolf


Pot luck or seeking the most promising films? That's a choice critics and viewers alike could have made in surveying 339 films from 55 countries, including 63 world and 104 North American premieres, all on the roster of the latest ever-ambitious Toronto International Film Festival, which ranges far and wide in selections from around the world, some as gala evenings, some in the various categories that enliven the event and intrigue local viewers lining up and scrounging for tickets. The Toronto gathering is an annual filmgoer's paradise. I opted for films I thought might be the most pleasing, and by and large, the search was rewarded. The 2003 Toronto film bash was replete with winners this year.

Take "The Human Stain," scripted by Nicholas Meyer from Philip Roth's clever topical novel and directed astutely by the esteemed Robert Benton. Although it is not possible to capture Roth's acerbic writing style on screen, the story is exceedingly well transferred. Emphasis is confined to three elements--politically correct absurdity, racial ambiguity and a love affair between an older man and a young woman. Anthony Hopkins gives a moving performance as Coleman Silk, the proud professor who resigns after being ridiculously accused of racism and all along has been harboring a secret about the life he has chosen.

Nicole Kidman, offering further proof that she is not only beautiful but an actress of great talent, provides an award-caliber performance as the young woman with whom the professor falls in love. Terribly abused in life, she is wary of any new relationship and warns the professor at the outset, "I don't do sympathy." Kidman's performance is brilliant as she veers between caution and commitment and wrestles with her character's vulnerability and needs. Ed Harris is harrowing as her crazed rejected husband, who is determined not to let her live in peace with another man.

It is Kidman time again in Lars Van Trier's ambitious "Dogville," a fascinating three-hour exploration of hypocrisy and cruelty in a small American town. The set design is especially adventurous, with what in effect is a huge stage as seen from above and the town impressionistically divided into marked streets and playing areas representing the various houses, which are sparsely furnished. The story has universality, until music and stills at the end would seem to make the United States the target of the philosophical idea that sometimes it is better to wipe out everybody for the greater good.

Kidman plays Grace, a young women fleeing mobsters. She seeks refuge in the town and is given jobs that enable the townsfolk to exploit her. She becomes a punching bag for raging resentments and frustrations with the hard life in Dogville, as well as a sexual object. She also falls prey to the hypocrisy of a do-gooder suitor. The repression is piled on to the point of her wanting to escape but the attempt goes awry due to betrayal, and the subsequent events build to a choice that she must make. The tone of the film is that of a morality tale, and there is an impressive cast handling other roles, including Harriet Andersson, Stellan Skarsgard, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Jean Marc-Barr, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara and Chloë Sevigny.

One of the best received films at the festival was "Lost in Translation," Sophia Coppola's droll, sensitive romantic comedy starring Bill Murray as a famous American actor doing a commercial in Japan and meeting Scarlett Johansson as a lonely wife. Both bored and at sea, they find common ground as they develop a warm, amusing relationship that may not be able to go anywhere beyond the moment. The tone is consistently lovely and muted, and the performances are divine. Murray is likely to be an award contender. (Click on Film or go to Search to read the full review.)

The film I liked least was "In the Cut," a sex-laden thriller directed by Jane Campion and adapted from a novel by Susanna Moore. Despite the much-publicized nudity of Meg Ryan and the fairly explicit sexual romp between her and co-star Mark Ruffalo, the murder mystery is merely turgid and on the obvious side. We're meant to be engulfed in suspense, but the characters are not very interesting and while oral sex performed on Ryan's character produces an orgasm, the film itself is merely ugly and boring without any "I'll have what she's having" levity. The press covering the Toronto Festival made much of the use of ever-explicit sex in films, and "In the Cut" was frequently cited, but despite Campion's skills, I found the film a time-waster.

Better time spent was viewing Robert Altman's pleasing "The Company," in which he worked with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and came up with a film creating a drama involving a behind-the-scenes look at how a company functions and what it is like for the dancers who live and breathe their work. There is hardly any story, just hints about relationships. The emphasis is on the dance and such scenes are exquisitely filmed.

Altman takes his time escorting us into this world, and he is abetted by the star performance of dancer Neve Campbell, who is not part of the Joffrey troupe but was integrated into the company for this film. She is beautiful, talented and lovely to watch. Malcolm McDowell is dynamic as the egotistical company director who asserts his authority and will not tolerate opposition but also indicates his love for what he is doing. The only heavy breathing "The Company" needs is that of dancers striving to do their best.

"Matchstick Men," a movie about the art of the con, shows Nicolas Cage off to prime advantage, with a good part too for Alison Lohman and another for Sam Rockwell. The film is based on a novel by Eric Garcia, and director Ridley Scott has nurtured the various twists that are a given with stories about con men. You may pick apart the plot, but it comes off skillfully and with flair, whether in the more intimate scenes, or when the action gets heated. The festival showcased the film just before its commercial opening. (Click on Film or go to Search to see full review.)

Joel Schumacher's sizzling "Veronica Guerin" tells the story of the principled Irish journalist who persisted in exposing drug dealers despite threats to her life and to her family. She ended up the victim of assassination. Carol Doyle's non-nonsense screenplay crackles with tension and the film is driven by a vigorous, impassioned and convincing performance by Cate Blanchett in the title role. The star captures the determination of Guerin and yet also shows fear and vulnerability, which make the heroism all the more believable.

The story is based on the facts of the case, and Guerin's murder resulted in special attention paid to getting rid of the drug kingpins whose rule she was reporting. Details about what happened to the real-life characters are flashed on screen at the end. Blanchett stands to be considered for awards for this one.

"Shattered Glass" is right on target with its examination of journalistic ethics. Writing for America's venerable liberal weekly "The New Republic," Stephen Glass made up story after story. The film, directed by Billy Ray, chronicles this real-life scandal and dramatizes efforts to unmask what Glass did. This gives the film suspense, as editors get on the trail of his fictions and Glass tries to cover his tracks and survive. His story predated the scandal of Jayson Blair, who admitted to similar transgressions at the New York Times.

Questions are raised about the level of journalistic ethics today and the pressure to come up with attention-grabbing reporting whether as depicted in "Shattered Glass' or in the flap between the BBC in England and the Tony Blair government. "Shattered Glass" is a thoughtful work that is both entertaining and enlightening, as well as a cautionary tale.

France had a hefty presence at the festival, and one especially classy French film is "Bon Voyage," directed by veteran filmmaker Jean-Paul Rappeneau ("Cyrano de Bergerac"). Rappeneau masters the complicated balancing act of treating the 1940 period in French history with comedy and romance, but at the same time showing an awareness of what was going on in the country when Nazi Germany invaded. The characters scurry about in their various relationships and efforts to survive the crisis. This segment of history is difficult for the French and Rappeneau approaches it with sophistication and wit.

Isabelle Adjani has a showy role as a self-absorbed actress who takes advantage of anyone who can help her continue in the style she prefers. Gérard Depardieu is colorful as the diplomat who is her protector. All sorts of intrigues are involved as the tale plays out, with the entertainment quality mixed with observations about French behavior in this sorry period that gave rise to both collaboration and heroism.

Traumatic times of another sort are depicted in Wolfgang Becker's funny and satirical "Good Bye, Lenin!" It is a riff on life in East Germany and concerns a woman who is dedicated to the Communist regime, in fact more than dedicated--an impassioned partisan ready to swallow whatever she is fed. An accident leaves her in an extended coma. When she awakes the Berlin wall has been brought down and East and West have fused. But her son Alex doesn't have the heart to let her learn what has happened and shatter her illusions.

Alex and his co-conspirators create a phony world of the old East German reign in the form of television news broadcasts, which his mother can watch from her bed. The most uproarious scene occurs when the wall is breached and the commentator describes the scene as people from the West stampeding to the East to enjoy the benefits of Communism. Will mom die with the serene impression that all is well in her Communist paradise? One can see why the film would be a hit in Germany, but its charm and humor, as well as its take on political illusions, should strike a chord virtually anywhere.

A new film from Israel proved affecting. "Broken Wings" avoids the troublesome Israeli-Palestinian warfare and concentrates on the struggles of an Israeli family. Nir Bergman directed the drama, which involves conflicts between a widowed mother and daughter and the mother's struggles to keep her family afloat. One son is a school dropout, a little one is just starting school and another son is filled with anger and prone to do something foolish and self-destructive.

The 17-year-old daughter longs to be a successful songwriter and singer, but has issues to work out with her mother, who needs her to help with her brothers. The crisis into which the family is plunged must lead either to a break or to understanding. The film is particularly strong in following the mother's desperation for a chance to reconstitute her shattered life, but there are no villains in the piece, only the need for understanding.

Among the assorted special sections of the festival was Planet Africa, and one of the most talked about in the category was "How To Get the Man's Foot OuttaYour Asss," directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also stars. The extra "s" is in keeping with the excessive s's in the title of the landmark African-American film by Mario's father Melvin Van Peebles, "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song." Mario tells the story of the making of his father's movie and thus spans a generation in the world of black cinema. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film for distributiom in the United States.

(More to Come)


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