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September 15, 1998 2:00 AM
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Toronto At The Halfway Point: Cannes Faves, "Very Bad Things Makes Good," A Japanese Stunner, and K

Toronto At The Halfway Point: Cannes Faves,
"Very Bad Things Makes Good," A Japanese Stunner, and Keitel Sings Elvis

by Stephen Garrett




Never lacking in newly-ripened product, this year's Toronto International Film
Festival
has a bumper crop of world premieres as well as a hearty harvest of the
year's best from the scores of major festivals around the world. Festival
Director Piers Handling and his selection committee have neatly divided their
over 300 films into a dozen basic sections, including "Gala Presentations,"
"Masters," "Real to Reel," "Perspective Canada," and "Midnight Madness," and
have kept Bloor Street bustling with festival goers trekking to and from the
festival's major multiplex venues: the Varsity, the Cumberland and the Uptown.


The major world premieres at this point have been Pat O'Connor's respectfully
received "Dancing at Lughnasa;" Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan," which has
generated good word-of-mouth and surprise over the flamboyant director's
uncharacteristic technical restraint; "Elizabeth," from director Shekhar Kapur
("Bandit Queen"); and the disappointing "L.A. Without a Map," from Mika
Kaurismaki.


One of the most eager responses from audience members has come from a selection
in "New Beat of Japan," a series of 18 movies hand-picked by programmer Noah
Cowan. "After Life," the second film from "Maborosi" director Hirokazu Kore-Eda
is as mythically evocative as "Wings of Desire" in its depiction of a way
station between heaven and earth where the newly-deceased are allowed to choose
only one memory from their life to take with them to heaven. Once decided,
these memories are then re-created and filmed for posterity before the spirits
ascend. Whimsical, surprisingly profound and refreshingly bereft of any special
effects, "After Life" is as gently moving as it is wildly original.


Two low-budget black-and-white features have also made a splash in the festival
pool. One of the major highlights so far in the "Discovery" section is British
filmmaker Christopher Nolan's "Following," a ridiculously cheap (under $10,000)
thriller about a man who impulsively stalks strangers and one day actually gets
involved in the lives of one of his subjects. Its shrewd use of flash-forwards
and flashbacks makes for inspired drama. And adding to the "Contemporary World
Cinema" category is "La Ciudad" ("The City"), New Yorker David Riker's quartet
of vignettes about the Latin American immigrant experience in Manhattan.
Disarmingly affecting, Riker's Spanish-language film showcases real-life workers,
from bricklayers to seamstresses, delivering powerful performances in their
respective roles.


Toronto is, as usual, giving North America its first glimpse at many of the hits
from last May's Cannes Film Festival, including Palme D'Or winner "Eternity and
a Day
" and other prize-winners like Erick Zonca's "The Dream Life of Angels,"
John Boorman's "The General," Roberto Benigni's Cannes Grand Prix winning "Life
is Beautiful
," and Carlos Saura's "Tango." Director's Fortnight faves Todd
Solondz's "Happiness," Don McKellar's "Last Night" and "Seul contre tous" by
Gaspar Noe, are also playing to enthusiastic response, with Noe's "Seul"
generating considerable reaction from audience members.


"Seul" follows the thoughts and emotions of a bitter, amoral, unemployed butcher
with a daughter in a sanitarium who is trying to start his life over again after
serving time in jail. Joltingly filmed with hyper-speed close-up zooms
accompanied by the sound of shotgun bursts, and uncompromisingly brutal both in
language and situation (once scene shows the butcher brutally punching his
pregnant wife's belly), "Seul" even includes a hair-raising finale preceded
with a flashing warning to the audience that more sensitive viewers should
leave the theater immediately. Its stomach-churning moments of violence as
well as a few brief shots of hard-core sex that the butcher watches in a porn
theater will slim down distribution offers considerably.


Also finding positive response are John Waters' trashy latest, "Pecker"; Peter
Berg's deliciously tasteless black comedy "Very Bad Things"; Morgan J. Freeman's
follow-up to "Hurricane Streets," the surprisingly charming "Desert Blue"; and
Julia Sweeny's "God Said, 'Ha!'," her critically acclaimed stage monologue about
her brother's and her own fight with cancer, which transfers surprisingly well
to screen, considering the claustrophobic potential of relentlessly fixing the
camera on a single person for ninety minutes.


Holdovers from earlier American festivals include Walter Salles' "Central
Station
," which made a splash in January at Sundance; "Without Limits," the
Robert Towne picture which opened this past weekend in the U.S. and had its
world premiere last spring at the Santa Barbara Film Festival; and two from
the 1998 L.A. Independent Film Festival: Bennett Miller's quirky documentary
"The Cruise" and Scott Ziehl's heroin nightmare "Broken Vessels." "Vessels"
makes for an even more engaging double bill with the comparatively tamer
Toronto premiere "Permanent Midnight," David Veloz's adaptation of Jerry
Stahl's harrowing autobiography about his life as a sitcom-writing junkie.
Despite its rambling structure and somewhat unrealized supporting characters,
"Midnight," boasts an impressive lead performance by Ben Stiller, lending a wry
charm to his first major dramatic role. Both "The Cruise" and "Permanent
Midnight" will be released soon by Artisan in the U.S. while "Vessels" remains
without a distributor; perhaps Artisan should take a closer look at this third
in a trio of offbeat urban stories.


Also lending his wry charm to a role is Harvey Keitel playing Elvis in David
Winkler's "Finding Graceland," a fable about the power of celebrities and
contemporary myths in the belief systems of America. Although dramatically
slight, the film boasts one of the more inspired scenes in the festival as
Keitel, dressed in a blue sequined jumpsuit, delivers a lightning rendition of
"Suspicious Minds" -- which he actually sings himself -- that inspired
thunderous applause from Toronto audience members.


Yet to come at this halfway point are new films from Bernardo Bertolucci ("The
Siege
"), Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("The Silence"), Olivier Assayas ("Fin Aout, Debut
Septembre
"), and last-minute addition Gianni Amelio ("The Way We Laughed"),
fresh from winning the top prize at last week's Venice Film Festival.

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