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More dispatches from Toronto

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Let us pick up where we left off last week at the 27th Toronto International Film Festival, which came to a close September 14. As with last week's round-up, release dates, where available, appear in parentheses.



Day Five (Fractured Family Tales)

A Leave It To Beaver feel these films had not. Moonlight Mile (November 4) is about the odd relationship between a young man (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the parents of his fiancée (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon). That might not sound too strange, but the fiancée died right after the wedding invitations were sent. Even weirder, the story is loosely based on something that actually happened to writer-director Brad Silberling (he was engaged to TV star Rebecca Schaeffer when she was murdered), and as a result, the film feels very, very real. Bruce Beresford's Evelyn (limited release on December 3) also depicts true-life events, portraying the legal plight of the perpetually unemployed Desmond Doyle (Pierce Brosnan) and his attempts to gain custody of his three children after his wife takes off with another man (back in '50s Dublin, you needed approval from both parents to rescue your kids from the evil nuns that ran the county's orphanages).

Laurel Canyon (spring 2003), Lisa Cholodenko's disappointing follow-up to High Art, tells a dull story about a recently engaged couple (Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale playing Yanks) who move into what is supposed to be his record-producer mother's empty house in Los Angeles. When they get there, however, Mom (Frances McDormand) is still there --- she hasn't finished recording her latest project, or frolicking with the leader of that band (Alessandro Nivola). The latest Dogme picture is Open Hearts (spring 2003), a damaging tale of a woman (Dogme staple Paprika Steen) who accidentally kills a man with her car and then prods her doctor husband (Mads Mikkelsen) to strike up a friendship with the dead man's fiancée (Sonja Richter). Of course, they begin to have an affair, which rips the doctor's family apart.



Day Six (World Cup)

Sports flicks are generally formulaic messes, but the festival offered two welcome exceptions about the planet's most popular sport. First up was Shaolin Soccer (spring 2003), a brilliant fusion of the typical sports-movie clichés with the acrobatic, high-wire martial arts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Writer-director-star Stephen Chow is no stranger to blending odd genres (he also made The God of Cookery) or getting huge laughs, and he doesn't disappoint here. Bend It Like Beckham (April 2, limited), already a monster hit in the UK, does some genre-bending of its own. It's about a young David-Beckham-obsessed Indian woman named Jess (Parminder K. Nagra) who finds herself caught between a potential career playing professional footie and the traditional beliefs of her Indian family, who are about to marry off Jess's older sister (Archie Panjabi). Think of it as My Big Fat Indian Wedding, only with soccer. The audience named it their third favorite film of the festival (Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine was second, while New Zealand's tiny Whale Rider shocked everyone by taking the top People's Choice award).



Day Seven (The First Anniversary)

Thankfully, there weren't any terrorist attacks interrupting this year's festival, but the events of 9/11 still loomed large. The festival contained two films specifically about the September atrocities. Jim Simpson's The Guys, which is based on Anne Nelson's popular Tribeca play, is about a fire captain (Anthony LaPaglia) who contacts a writer (Sigourney Weaver) to help him craft the many, many eulogies he will be expected to give over the next few weeks. That picture was almost overshadowed by the storm of controversy stirred up by 11'09"01, a French-financed (hence the backwards date) series of shorts, each running 11 minutes and nine seconds and made by one of 11 of the world's finest filmmakers (including Amos Gitaï, Shohei Imamura, Sean Penn, and Mira Nair). Some were reported to have expressed very un-American sentiments, but that wasn't the case at all. Most compared the 9/11 attacks to lesser-publicized events with higher body counts that happened elsewhere in the world, like Ken Loach's look at the September 11 (1973) US-backed coup of Peru's government, and Danis Tanovic's reminder of another painful 11th --- the massacre at Srebrnica in July 1995. One short is even a comedy: Idrissa Ouedraogo's funny story about a group of kids who think they've found Osama bin Laden and dream up ways to spend the $25 million reward. But the most devastating piece came courtesy of Amores Perros' Alejandro González Iñárritu, who used a black screen, Arab chanting, television sound bites, and split-second flashes of doomed WTC jumpers to send chills down even the most jaded of spines.



Day Eight (Fabulous Femmes)

The ladies were living large again today, but none more so than the brilliant cast of François Ozon's 8 Women (September 20, limited). Sure, the premise --- a party, a murder, and finger-pointing between the guests and servants --- sounds a lot like the snooze-fest that was Gosford Park, but Ozon is far too smart to bog viewers down with three dozen characters that are impossible to tell apart. Not only that, it's also a campy musical, and the eight roles he does create are brought to life by the cream of French cinema --- Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Danielle Darrieux, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, and Emmanuelle Béart, among others. As fun as it was to watch, it looked even more fun to make (I'm hoping the DVD will have outtakes). Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters won the Golden Lion award at the Venice festival, which ran just before Toronto's started, and nabbed the Discovery Award here. It's an overwhelming look at three young Irish girls whose families place them in one of the many Catholic-church-run Magdalene Homes for unforgivable discretions like being too flirtatious or getting raped by your cousin. On the surface, the film sounds like one of those Nun Revenge stories (like we just saw in Evelyn), but Mullan's direction and the haunting performances by the three young women make it incredibly tough to watch. While My Mother's Smile doesn't boast a strong female lead, one woman does make her presence felt throughout the entire film. It's about an atheist painter (Sergio Castellitto), who finds out his late mother may be made a saint by the Catholic church.

There were also a handful of movies about people who are forced to leave their homelands for various reasons. Agnieszka Holland's Julie Walking Home is about a Canadian couple (Miranda Otto and William Fichtner, both not Canadian) who take their cancer-stricken son to Europe so he can get treatment from a Polish faith healer (Lothaire Bluteau, who is Canadian). City of Ghosts, Matt Dillon's directorial debut, depicts a con man (Dillon) fleeing the US to find his boss (James Caan) in Vietnam, while the violent Aussie comedy Dirty Deeds portrays the misfortunes of a pair of American hoodlums (John Goodman and Felix Williamson) as they try to strong-arm their way into the business of slot machines in Sydney. As per Australian decree, Deeds also stars Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Toni Collette.



Day Nine (Wanderlust)

Today featured even more people who can't stay put. The best of the lot (and possibly the best of this festival) is Jim Sheridan's tentatively titled In America (April 16, limited), a truly heartwarming story about an Irish family moving to New York City. The script is brilliant, carefully avoiding the schmaltz usually found in other uplifting pictures; and the performances, especially from the two kids (played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger), are dazzling. The only downside is that some may write it off as another Mystical Negro Shows Whitey The Way film (like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance), as there is a thread involving Djimon Hounsou forging an unusual relationship with the kids and their parents (Samantha Morton and Paddy Constantine).

Robert Duvall unspooled The Apostle in Toronto several years ago, but he should keep Assassination Tango in the can. It's about a New York hitman sent to Argentina to kill, but who instead learns to dance. Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (April 11, limited) features two characters that have left their homes for London --- Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a doctor in Nigeria, but is now a cabbie and a bellhop, while Amélie's Audrey Tautou plays a Turkish virgin who cleans rooms in the same hotel. It's an unconventional romance, complete with organ stealing.



Day Ten (Fatale Finale)

The festival ended in style, with Brian DePalma's Double Indemnity update Femme Fatale (November 8) throwing everyone for a loop (it's almost this year's version of Mulholland Drive). Adam Sandler dazzled in his dramatic turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love (October 18), and Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami showed how much you can do with so little in 10, a film made with a digital camera mounted on the dashboard of a car. The festival's other controversial entry, Gaspar Noé's Irreversible (spring 2003), was far more stunning than it was contentious (viewers abandoned it en masse at Cannes). Like Memento, its story is told backwards, and its centerpiece features a brutal anal rape and beating that sends the end (meaning the beginning) into what I can only describe as a dizzying trip through a catacomb of depravity in which the camera never stops moving, tilting, and panning (Noé apparently treats the camera like a hot potato). There isn't much that causes me to turn my head away in disgust (although Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher [December 20] did it for different reasons), but Irreversible made it happen twice.

Interested in raw, unedited movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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