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Toronto harvest yields few breakthroughs

Toronto harvest yields few breakthroughs

TORONTO — At a film festival such as Toronto, which screens 256 feature films in nine days, it’s possible for seven different people to attend four films per day and see entirely different sets of movies.

Without a competition or central set of pictures to concentrate participants’ attention, people experiencing the same overall event can come away with vastly different impressions based upon having seen utterly distinct groups of movies.

And yet the overall impression left by the 24th annual Toronto conclave, which wrapped Sept. 18, was one of many interesting films but very few of great artistic significance, especially among the titles on view internationally for the first time. There were any number of crowd-pleasers, and others that appealed to buffs, but also notable disappointments as well.

Between the somewhat subdued opening with Atom Egoyan’s “Felicia’s Journey” and its closing with Martha Fiennes’ “Onegin,” which stars the director’s brother, Ralph, and was found very moving by some and overly tedious by others, Toronto featured several sexually hot Euro and Asian pics of minimal aesthetic distinction, some variable star-laden Hollywood titles as galas, numerous unexpectedly strong international documentaries and a particularly lackluster lineup of U.S. indies. And there was the customary smorgasbord of North American premieres of high-profile foreign fare from the year’s preceding festivals.

Among the fresh gala titles, Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” from the first weekend remained a high point for most observers by the time the final curtain came down. Kevin Spacey, who was also here repping the reasonably well-received small-scale indie “The Big Kahuna,” was arguably king of the fest, dominating local media coverage and receiving countless kudos for his spectacular year in cinema and theater.

Wayne Wang’s “Anywhere but Here” was reckoned a well-mounted but old-fashioned star melodrama, while the other high-profile gala premieres generated middling enthusiasm at best. Pics considered disappointments to varying degrees were: Istvan Szabo’s three-hour historical panorama “Sunshine,” Matthew Warchus’ Nick Nolte-Sharon Stone-Jeff Bridges drama “Simpatico,” Carlos Diegues’ Rio carnival extravaganza “Orfeu,” Scott Hicks’ low-key adaptation of “Snow Falling on Cedars,” Lawrence Kasdan’s thin “Mumford” and Salvatore Maira’s Italian “Love in the Mirror.”

Same held for the always anticipated American independents. Standout was Kimberly Peirce’s devastatingly fine “Boys Don’t Cry,” which bowed at Venice just prior to Toronto. Scott Elliott’s “A Map of the World,” starring Sigourney Weaver, triggered very mixed reactions to its handling of troubling novelistic material. Receiving good-to-fair responses were James D. Stern’s hip look at gun culture, “All the Rage”; Errol Morris’ overextended docu on a weird designer of execution devices, “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.”; Agnieszka Holland’s religious-themed “Third Miracle” with Ed Harris; Malcolm D. Lee’s buoyant “The Best Man”; and Tom Gilroy’s talky actors’ showcase, “Spring Forward.”

Running far behind the pack were two prominent auteurist titles, Paul Schrader’s noirish romantic melodrama “Forever Mine” and Charles Burnett’s old-age romantic comedy “The Annihilation of Fish,” as well as Randall Harris’ “Wayward Son” and Jamie Babbit’s gay-themed comedy “But I’m a Cheerleader.”

Two small indies that came out of nowhere to spark tumultuous audience reactions were Kevin Jordan’s warmly observed coming-of-ager about two brothers, “Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish,” and William Jennings’ “Harlem Aria,” a corny but big-hearted comedy-drama about a guileless young black man with a spectacular operatic singing voice.

Following the lead of Catherine Breillat’s windily pretentious and overhyped “Romance,” several other films included heavy sex content without delivering much of anything else. Among them was a hardcore Italian drama, Aurelio Grimaldi’s “La Donna Lupo,” Jang Sun Woo’s vivid but non-explicit “Lies” and Im Sang-soo’s verbally frank “Girls’ Night Out,” both from South Korea, and Coky Giedroyc’s “Women Talking Dirty” from the U.K. Even two provocatively themed docus, Cass Paley’s “Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes” and Cristine Richey’s Canadian “Tops & Bottoms,” failed to deliver the goods that auds no doubt came in expecting.

By contrast, viewers might have been anticipating one thing from Frederic Fonteyne’s “A Pornographic Affair” from France but got something altogether different: a deeply insightful look at a relationship.

Other international titles that made generally positive impressions on critics were Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us,” Claire Denis’ “Le beau travail,” Shane Meadows’ “A Room for Romeo Brass,” Mike Figgis’ “Miss Julie,” Zhang Yang’s “Shower,” Djordje Milosavljevic’s “Wheels” and Gordian Maugg’s innovative quasi-silent film “Hans Warns — My 20th Century.” Buffs traversing specialized turf spent considerable time at the seven-film spotlight on cult Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Among the docus attracting upbeat notice were Peter Cohen’s “Homo Sapiens 1900,” Jesper Jargit’s “The Humiliated,” Jos de Putter’s “The Making of a New Empire,” Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Pripyat” and Samira Gloor-Fadel’s “Berlin-Cinema.”