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Dispatches from Toronto 

The 27thToronto International Film Festival, which continues to unspool even as you read this, is many things to many people. For some, it's an early indicator of which upcoming films might be Oscar contenders (five of the last six winners of the People's Choice Award for the audience's favorite film have gone on to nab multiple Academy Award nominations). For others, it's a chance to stalk celebrities or take in a whole bunch of movies that they would never otherwise get a chance to see. And for a few filmmakers, it's a harrowing time in which a handful of snooty industry types will decide if their celluloid baby is good enough to be picked up for distribution, either here or abroad. So, without further fanfare, here's what's gone down during the festival's first half. (Release dates, where available, are noted in parentheses).

Day Zero (The Teen Beat)

All right, there isn't really a Day Zero at the festival --- I just cooked that up so I could mention the films I saw before the public screenings got underway (they screen some pictures early for us really sick bastards who can't get enough). The best of the lot both happened to be about older men wielding undue influence over teenage girls. Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-ever follows the life of 13-year-old Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) after her mother abandons her and their dilapidated Russian tenement to be with a guy she met online. Left to her own wiles, Lilya does the unthinkable, even though everyone (including her best friend, and the entire audience) knows things are going to end very badly. On the up side, Blue Car (limited release on November 8) isn't nearly as bleak, although it does tell the tale of a burgeoning young poet (Agnes Bruckner) and the married English teacher (David Strathairn) who takes her under his wing. Both of these films feature very strong performances from their female leads.

            Two French films nicely illustrated what both ends of the cinematic success spectrum looked like on this "day." Patrice Leconte's The Man on the Train (spring 2003) was a delight (it's about a young, rootless bank robber and an older man who regrets the lack of excitement in his life), while Claire Denis' Friday Night was a boring flick about a woman, a traffic jam, and a stranger she picks up, fucks, and takes to dinner. At least it looked pretty.

Day One (And They're Off...)

There's no cohesive theme to hold this day together, so I'll just start the way the festival did --- with the opening night gala, Atom Egoyan's Ararat (November 15, limited). When the locals don't take kindly to one of Egoyan's films (he's Canadian), it's usually a sign to head for the hills, but I thought Ararat was rather interesting. It tackles a portion of history about which many people are unaware (Turkey's extermination of Armenians --- Egoyan is one of the latter, as well), and it's structured in a very interesting way (using a film within a film, but not pretentiously, the way Full Frontal did). I also caught I'm the Father, a German entry about a workaholic dad and his battle with his estranged wife over custody of their only child. Sebastian Blomberg plays the dad in a haunting, sort of Billy-Crudup-channeling-Kurt-Cobain-in-Almost-Famous kind of way.

Day Two (Ladies First)

There may be more days like this coming up, but it would be unforgivable not to mention the following terrific performances: Cate Blanchett in Heaven (October 4, limited), Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) first crack at making films outside his native Germany (this one was written by two Poles, stars an Australian and an American, and is set in Italy --- it also has an unfortunate scene in which a character detonates a bomb in a skyscraper); Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary (September 20, limited), a love story involving a recent nuthouse resident and a sexually repressed attorney (James Spader... who else?); Adèle Haenel in France's Les Diables --- a moving film, with two memorable performances, about a teenage brother and sister looking for their mother while simultaneously trying to stay out of foster homes and institutions; and the always reliable Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay's stunning follow-up to Ratcatcher, which will be screening at this year's High Falls Film Festival.

            I almost knocked Ms. Ramsay down (she was on her way into the theater to do the Q&A portion of the screening) as I bolted out of my seat and out the door in order to make the start of my favorite film of the festival thus far --- Fernando Meirelles' City of God (January 17, limited), an insanely stylish, incredibly violent look at gangs and drugs in a notoriously impoverished section of Rio de Janeiro. Maybe I was bitter because I wasn't going to be home to see the final episode of HBO's The Wire (another elegant yet bloody look at gangs and drugs in a poor neighborhood), but God did the trick for me in the same out-of-left-field way that Amores Perros shook me to my unwashed core. Not only is it deftly filmed, it's well written and does a great job fleshing out the backgrounds of an exceptionally high number of characters (as opposed to, say, Gosford Park).

Day Three (Café des Artistes)

Artists were well represented today, especially those whose medium involves paint and a canvas. First up was White Oleander (October 11, limited), an odd, but mostly effective, coming-of-age story about a teenager (Allison Lohman) whose artist mom (Michelle Pfeiffer) goes to jail for killing her boyfriend (they're both painters). Then there was High Falls-bound Frida (October 25, limited), Julie Taymor's (Titus) biopic about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (played by the unibrowed Salma Hayek); and Neil Jordan's The Good Thief (March 12, limited), which is about a gambling- and heroin-addicted American (Nick Nolte) trying to liberate a bunch of paintings from a Monte Carlo casino.

            Photographers were also in the house, starting with The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia (a documentary about Mr. Adams' extensive works capturing the most rural areas of Kentucky), and ending with Paul Schrader's Auto Focus (October 18, limited), which tells the seedy story of actor Bob Crane (better known to most as "Hogan"). Greg Kinnear seems like he was born to play Crane, a family man with an exceptionally dark side that's brought out by the creepy guy who installs the hi-fi in his trailer (Willem Dafoe... who else?). Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about Terry Gilliam's unsuccessful attempt to make a Don Quixote picture, showed just how little the director was able to photograph before all manner of unbelievable, coincidental things occurred, leading to that production being shut down with very little film in the can.

            Though it had nothing to do with art, the most artful film of the day was Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's Intacto (spring 2003), which was a delicious mélange of Fight Club, Unbreakable, Croupier, and Reservoir Dogs. It focuses on a very unusual, underground group of people who think good luck is something that can be given and taken away through bizarre games of chance that usually feature a blindfold and an extraordinarily high death rate. I heard somebody talking bad about Intacto later that day, and almost choked them with the headphones to my Walkman.

Day Four (Just Deserts)

It's wise to control your intake of fluids when your bathroom breaks are limited to the three minutes you have in between screenings, but today's films left me even more parched than usual. It all started with Gerry (February 7, limited), Gus Van Sant's heady picture about two friends (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who get stranded in the desert (a la The Sopranos' "Pines Barrens" episode). Then it was Shekhar Kapur's (Elizabeth) The Four Feathers (September 20), which depicts a bloody desert battle between a bunch of Brits (including non-Brits Heath Ledger and Wes Bentley) and a whole lot of rebels from Sudan. As if that weren't enough, there was also Japòn, which tells the tale of a man hiking across a very arid part of Mexico to commit suicide in the village of his birth, and Rabbit-Proof Fence (November 29, limited), an Australian import about three Aboriginal girls and their long trek home through the outback after escaping the evil clutches of Kenneth Branagh (well, a character played by him, anyway).

            I missed the first 15 minutes of Michael Moore's new documentary, Bowling For Columbine (October 11, limited), but I'm pretty sure the chunk I didn't see had nothing to do with the desert. Columbine is a look at America's infatuation with guns and violence, and how that obsession led to the school shooting in Middleton. In the last reel, Moore manages to interview NRA president Charlton Heston, and I'm pretty sure ol' Chuck made up his recent "Alzheimer-like symptoms" to discredit the nonsensical crap spewing from his mouth (he blames violence in America on the mixing of the races). Meanwhile, Columbine has already been banned from the entire Regal theater chain.

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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