Monday, September 15, 2003

Toronto showcases lively variety

By David Germain
The Associated Press

TORONTO - This year's Toronto International Film Festival caught a good wave, showcasing an impressive range of serious drama, provocative comedy and goofy romance. Highlights among the 254 feature-length films that played during the 10-day festival, which ended Saturday:

In the Cut: Director Jane Campion (The Piano) adapts the Susanna Moore novel that depicts Greenwich Village as the eighth circle of hell. Meg Ryan turns her good-girl image upside down as a mousy schoolteacher taking a walk on the wild side: Full frontal nudity, language to make a sailor flinch, and sexual behavior of a decidedly non-vanilla stripe.

The Snow Walker: Twenty years after starring in the Canadian North adventure Never Cry Wolf, Charles Martin Smith returns to the land to direct this tale of survival and cross-cultural kinship. Barry Pepper plays a pilot who undergoes a painfully authentic transformation when forced to rely on his passenger, a tubercular young Eskimo woman (Annabella Piugattuk), after their plane crashes. A simple story, majestically rendered.

21 Grams: Major Oscar bait for the heavy-duty performances of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's drama that ponders, what is the weight of your soul? The fractured, nonlinear film connects the lives of three tragic people: A man (Penn) dying from a weak heart, a former druggie (Watts) mourning the loss of her family, and an ex-con (Del Toro) whose attempt to go straight is hurled back in his face.

Love Actually: With its Christmas theme, big lovable cast and a heart the size of Greater London, this sloppy wet kiss of a movie is bound to be the holiday season's great date flick. Reveling in silliness and sentiment, writer-director Richard Curtis' ensemble romance is a wonderful salve for cynical times. His terrific cast of Londoners longing for love includes Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

The Saddest Music in the World: "If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady," declares Winnipeg's beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini), a double amputee who stages a Depression-era contest to find the world's most sorrowful tunes. Using provocative visuals to wickedly pervert the splendor of old black-and-white musicals, director Guy Maddin presents an absurdist's delight that alternates between depraved hilarity and melancholy.

Rick: Harden your heart and blind justice may rip it out of your chest, learns our hero Rick (Bill Pullman), a widowed father whose sense of virtue has gone south in Curtiss Clayton's incisive directing debut. With gleeful callousness, Rick ruins the life of a job applicant, resulting in a curse against him that plays out with morbid humor and a brutal dramatic twist.

My Life Without Me: A grievously somber yet oddly life-affirming tale from director Isabel Coixet. Sarah Polley plays a young wife and mother with a dead-end job and a sudden death sentence when she learns she has only months to live. Polley delivers a graceful, understated performance as her character matter-of-factly sets out to leave her family's lives in order - while injecting a few final thrills in her own.

Coffee and Cigarettes: Jim Jarmusch presents the weirdest coffee breaks ever captured on film. Shot over the last 17 years, Jarmusch's collection of black-and-white short films feature Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi and others pondering the things that really matter - the wonders of genealogy, Nicola Tesla's legacy, what really happened to Elvis.

How To Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Asss!: Mario Van Peebles spins an exuberant portrait of an artist he knows very well, his dad, Melvin Van Peebles. Mario directs and stars as his father in Melvin's struggle to make the 1971 black-power film Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, which spawned the "blaxploitation" wave of lesser copycats. Though touching at times, Mario's flick doesn't flinch at portraying Melvin as a ruthless man on a mission.

16 Years Of Alcohol: Drawing on the skinhead pasts of himself and his slain brother, Richard Jobson crafts a poetic picture of an angry young Scotsman in a struggle against the liquor-induced rage that could spell his doom. Actor Kevin McKidd strikes a delicate balance between menace and tenderness, and his resonant voice infuses old-soul wisdom to the lyrical language of Jobson's screenplay.

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