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Sorting out films, from feel-goods to yawners 

From the thick of the 28th Toronto International Film Festival, here is the lowdown on the most notable films so far.

The Good

Coffee & Cigarettes: Not so much a film as a collection of shorts Jim Jarmusch started making back in 1986 (for Saturday Night Live, no less). Each features a few actors sitting around drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and getting into some mostly improvised dialogues at tables with checkerboard patterns. Some make sense (Iggy Pop vs. Tom Waits, and Meg White vs. Jack White), while others pair polar opposites (Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright), and other just make you want to pee your pants (RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray). Full of great jukebox music, including a new Iggy Pop cover of "Louie, Louie." Release date: TBA

            Dogville: Some people say Lars von Trier's Dogville is way too anti-American. I say it's way too long. But even at three hours, it's a very impressive start to von Trier's proposed USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy. Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a woman who is on the run from gangsters and eventually finds relative safety in a small Colorado town. But the residents of said town start threatening to turn Grace over unless she complies with their every wish. Soon, she's working twice as hard for half the money, getting raped by every man in town and... well, you can see where the anti-American stuff stems from. Von Trier films it all on a sparse soundstage with unflattering lighting, minimal props, and buildings that are more like what you'd see playing The Sims than in real life. A truly original cinematic experience, but it just didn't have to be this long. Release date: sometime in 2004.

            The Station Agent: It's been a while since I've seen a Three Loners Complete Each Other flick done this well. Peter Dinklage plays a dwarf who inherits an abandoned train depot in Newfoundland, New Jersey. Bobby Cannavale is a fun-loving loudmouth roped into manning his ailing father's sandwich truck. Patricia Clarkson is an accident-prone divorcee who recently lost her only child. Throw in Michelle Williams as a small-town librarian plus some really pretty photography, and it will be abundantly clear to you why this picture won awards at Sundance. Release date: October 10 (limited).

            21 Grams: The film I was most eager to see did not disappoint... at least after the first 10 confusing minutes. Alejandro González Iñarritu's follow-up to the brilliant Amores Perros blends elements of that film (a horrible incident involving a car that affects three different threads of the story) with --- and this may seem really hard to believe --- Return to Me's falling in love with the recipient of your dead spouse's heart. To say more would betray the film, and make the opening much less confusing when you see it. And I'm really not here to make things easier for you. Stars Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and the amazing Naomi Watts, who delivers this festival's second-best shot at an acting Oscar. Release date: November 11 (limited).

The bad

A Problem With Fear: You know a film is bad when it's Canadian and still gets slammed by the generous hometown press. Gary Burns, who showed so much promise with waydowntown and Kitchen Party, stinks up the joint with a story about a paranoid guy who realizes the things he fears most (elevators and escalators and the like) are literally killing strangers in Vancouver. The only redeeming quality is an interesting slant on the whole color-coded terror alert levels and insane media frenzy surrounding every perceived danger we have here in the States. Release date: TBA.

            Rick: Occasionally clever, but not nearly enough so to make it worth your while, this directorial debut from Curtiss Clayton (who edited most of Gus Van Sant's films) stars Bill Pullman as the number two man in a corporate boys' club (literally). His boss (Aaron Stanford) is about half his age and has the hots for his daughter (Agnes Bruckner). So, like any good father and businessman, Rick hires a corporate killer (Dylan Baker) to do away with his Big Boss at the firm's Christmas party. Release date: TBA.

The painfully mediocre

The Barbarian Invasions: The good news: Writer-director Denys Arcand says his opening-night film isn't a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, and that's a good thing because I never saw it. The bad news: Arcand is a filthy liar because Invasions features the same characters (only 17 years older) that populated Empire. Here, lecherous professor Rémy (Rémy Girard) is dying of cancer and his wealthy, estranged son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) is determined to make his dad as comfortable as possible. And if that means getting the junkie daughter (Cannes-winner Marie-Josée Croze) from one of Rémy's many affairs to score street heroin, then so be it. Hope you love horrifyingly sad endings, sucker. Release date: November 21 (limited).

            Cypher: Vincenzo Natali's follow-up to 1997 festival hit Cube is set in a dark, futuristic world where two huge corporations are trying to maintain data superiority over their rival. Even if it means brainwashing one particular pawn (Jeremy Northam) to serve as a double (or is it triple?) agent. Even though the ending is far too predictable, Cypher is still entertaining in a creepy Gattaca-like way. It's kind of like a whole season of Alias --- with two SD-6 agencies --- boiled down to a 100-minute film. Co-stars Lucy Liu, the forgotten Angel. Release date: sometime before the end of the year.

            The Event: It's one of those films that's so Canadian, they had to let it in the festival. Writer-director Thom Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden) tells the story of a man (Don McKellar) who has died of AIDS and the mysterious "event" that preceded his death. Was it a big blowout party/gay variety show, a sad euthanasia ceremony, or maybe a little bit of both? An ADA (Parker Posey) is assigned to find out if anything illegal happened. Maybe you'll dig it, and you'll have your chance to weigh in when The Event screens at the ImageOut Festival next month. Release date: October 3 (limited).

            The Human Stain: A stellar cast doing a superb job saves this adaptation of Philip Roth's novel from being one of those Oscar-season duds. Anthony Hopkins plays Coleman Silk, a Massachusetts college professor driven out of his job on trumped-up charges of racism. The ordeal kills his wife, and he soon takes up with a girl from the wrong side of the tracks (Nicole Kidman) with a psychotic husband (Ed Harris) and a big secret... but ol' Coleman has a dark little whopper of his own. Strung together like The English Patient and shot by the late cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, Stain is still solid, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. Release date: October 3 (limited).

            In the Cut: Meg Ryan's big attempt at playing a gritty adult role (instead of that pixie bullshit she's been pushing for the last decade-and-a-half) comes in this serial killer flick filtered through an art house lens. Jane Campion directs the story about a high school English teacher who falls in love with a swarthy cop (a beyond excellent Mark Ruffalo) and becomes embroiled in a jackpot involving a psycho who is beheading women in her neighborhood. A very beautiful, very well-directed picture with strong performances, but it's still a whodunit, which means everything is telegraphed to the point where the ending is a letdown. And Meg fakes another orgasm, too! Release date: October 22 (limited).

The bizarre

Feathers in My Head: Don't look for much of a story in this tale of a Belgian mother who has a slow but complete breakdown after her only son drowned in a nearby lake while she was busy getting her shtup on. The attractions here are the stunning compositions which generally revolve around water imagery, like boots filling up with rainwater and the repeated use of birds dive-bombing into water to catch fish. There's also a Greek chorus, I think. Their songs weren't subtitled, so I'm just guessing here. Weird, but damn lovely. Release date: TBA.

            Jesus, You Know: If you saw Ulrich Seidel's Dog Days, you know he's one twisted bastard. That just makes his latest even more unusual. Like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Ki-duk Kim, Seidel takes a drastic change in theme and mood with this documentary that shows six different people as they pray to Jesus. And these folks talk and talk until poor Jesus's ears are ready to bleed. Then, as if a sign from above, the film started to melt, so I'll never know what happened to the young man whose mother yelled at him for going to service every day instead of cleaning his room. Release date: TBA.

For more reviews of films playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, visit Jon's site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com.

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