Northern Lights

Taking On Toronto's Film Festival

They used to call it the "Festival of Festivals," and one great thing about the 300-movie Toronto Film Festival is that you get to survey all the others—sample Cannes, second-guess New York, see what just won (and what didn't) at Venice—while previewing Hollywood's fall slate, checking local discoveries, and catching an increasing number of world premieres.

Toronto in September is more temperate than Cannes in May—perhaps that's why Tsai Ming-Liang's widely dissed The Hole and Arturo Ripstein's ignored Divine looked like pretty quintessential works in Canada. Tsai's acerbic vision of a soft apocalypse in a waterlogged Taipei is even more controlled and funny than Vive L'Amour, while Ripstein's sly retelling of the Christ story—in the context of a Mexican doomsday cult led by two elderly movie stars taking cues from the Biblical spectacles of the '50s—is not only a triumph of cantina mise-en-scène but a touchingly personal statement as well. What's not to like? I can, on the other hand, see why Mohsen Makhmalbaf's abstractly allegorical French co-pro The Silence and Larry Clark's painfully unconvincing lowlife thriller Another Day in Paradise sank in Venice.

Among the world premieres, Olivier Assayas's mild, bordering on tepid Late August, Early September received a mild, if friendly, response while Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged proved totally polarizing. For some it was a stunning return to form after the embarrassment of Stealing Beauty; for me, this story of an African woman in Rome (and the David Thewlis who loves her) was an even more condescending and clueless exercise, for which the most appropriate American title would be Call Me Bwana.

The studios were showing strenuously offbeat thrillers—with Sam Raimi's straightforward morality tale A Simple Plan the strongest and Bryan Singer's morally bankrupt neo-Nazi horror flick Apt Pupil the weirdest—and even more strenuously offbeat comedies. The high-school romance Rushmore is one of the ornaments of the upcoming NYFF while the magic realist meta-sitcom Pleasantville provides a social metaphor so timely and schizoid that it should keep Frank Rich in columns for a month.

Like Sundance and Telluride, Toronto has its share of hot buzz events—this year including the clever, if flat, British thriller Following, the not-nearly-as-bad-as-it-might-have-been Australian dysfunctional love story Praise, and (most spectacularly) the power-pop German video game Run Lola Run, a glibly entertaining spectacle of a Berlin punk goddess with 20 minutes to save her boyfriend's life, which had the cell phones crackling until it was bought, midscreening, by Sony Classics.

Two local films also made waves. David Riker's sensationally shot Spanish-language La Ciudad rated several paragraphs in the Times while Bennett Miller's The Cruise, a portrait of a flamboyant tour guide who rants to blank-faced tourists in the cadences of a beat poet, is one of the most outrageously entertaining performance docs I've ever seen. The Empire State Building is "the history of all phallic emotion." Some years you come to Toronto to preview the NYFF and see something that makes you review New York.

 
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