Here are some quick reviews of films screened at the 26th annual Toronto International Film Festival.
The Toronto International Film Festival is the Mount Everest of film festivals, and only the hardiest of cinephiles survive the ascent. Racing from screening to screening doesn't give visitors time to do much of anything but try to catch their breath between movies. Nonstop celluloid from early morning (most films begin at 8:30 a.m.) till midnight for nine days straight might sound like a dream come true, but the pleasure principle rarely enters into the equation.
Like those hardy souls who attempt Everest and live to tell about it, the TIFF attendee thrives on the adrenaline rush and laughs in the face of danger. Here's one fearless fest-goer's rundown on a mere fraction of this year's 326 films:
"Joy Ride": *** Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski, and Steve Zahn take a nightmarish cross-country road trip in cult director John ("The Last Seduction") Dahl's slick homage to 1970's drive-in fare.
"Novocaine": **1/2 Dentist Steve Martin gets embroiled in a twisted murder scheme thanks to painkiller-addicted patient Helena Bonham Carter. David Atkins' watchable if hard-to-peg debut effort bounces between film noir and macabre farce, never really finding a consistent tone.
"From Hell": ***1/2 Jack the Ripper as you've never seen him. The Hughes Bros.' ("Dead Presidents") take on this oft-told tale resembles a Hammer horror movie filtered through the stylistic excesses of "Moulin Rouge."
"Serendipity": ** A charming idea for a romantic comedy (love found, lost, then regained many years later) is undermined by a lack of chemistry between leads John Cusack and Kate Beckinsdale and drab, dreary cinematography.
"Tape": *** Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard do some of their best work ever in "Slacker" director Richard Linklater's digitally-shot chamber piece, and Linklater's hyperactive camera prevents it from ever feeling stagy.
"Dust": **1/2 Deeply strange but oddly compelling mix of Balkan politics, the Old West, and a present-day New York City apartment burglary. This failure by gifted Milcho Manchevski (the Oscar-nominated "Before the Rain") is more interesting than many "good" films.
"Hearts in Atlantis": *** An 11-year-old boy's life is changed forever during the summer of 1960 by his mother's mysterious, possibly psychic boarder (Anthony Hopkins) in this overly precious but still affecting adaptation of several Stephen King stories.
"The Business of Strangers": **1/2 Provocative gender switch on "In the Company of Men" in which Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles get the better of the opposite sex: too bad this Sundance favorite falls apart in its final act.
"In the Bedroom": ***1/2 Grieving parents (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek) avenge the death of their teen-age son in this emotionally wrenching cross between "Ordinary People" and "Death Wish." Although a tad plodding, superb performances make it unforgettable.
"No Man's Land": **** Two Croats and a Serb trapped in a trench during the Bosnian War is the unlikely setup for this scathing black comedy that plays like a fusion of Kubrick's masterpieces "Dr. Strangelove" and "Full Metal Jacket."
"Pauline and Paulette": **1/2 This kitschy, candy-colored Belgian whimsy about geriatric sisters should prove a hit for Sony Classics. Anyone who recoils from the sentimentalization of the mentally handicapped, however, should avoid it at all costs.
"Loin": *** The magnetic Stephane Rideau is a truck driver trafficking in illegal goods and forbidden love in French master Andre ("Wild Reeds") Techine's latest, which has the feel of a romanticized social-realist tract from Belgium's Dardennes Bros. ("Rosetta").
"The Safety of Objects": *** Well-played suburban ensembler lifts several pages from the "American Beauty"/"Happiness" handbook to crowd-pleasing effect. Glenn Close could finally nail an Oscar for her extraordinary supporting performance.
"Dark Blue World": *** Oscar-winning "Kolya" director Jan Sverak's sentimental ode to Czech pilots who flew for the RAF in WWII is a welcome antidote to "Pearl Harbor." While nothing earth-shattering, this Sony Classics release has a quaint, old-fashioned appeal.
"Prozac Nation": *1/2 Elizabeth Wurtzel's best-selling memoir about battling clinical depression is rendered impossibly dreary on the big screen. Decent performances by Christina Ricci and Michelle Williams can't redeem the overall banality or tedium.
"Buffalo Soldiers": ***1/2 A West German army base circa 1989 is the backdrop for this brazenly cynical farce in which G.I. black marketeer Joaquin Phoenix butts heads with Top Sergeant Scott Glenn. Bravura filmmaking with the absurdist edge of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22."
"Heist": ***1/2 Wily master crook Gene Hackman is conned into pulling one last job by fence Danny DeVito. David ("State and Main," "House of Games") Mamet's smart, funny caper flick puts summer's similarly themed "The Score" to shame.
"Focus": ** Based on an Arthur Miller novel, this slow-moving, heavy-handed WW II home front drama dealing with anti-Semitism features a strong cast (including William H. Macy and Laura Dern) but belongs on PBS's "American Playhouse."
"Trouble Every Day": *** Vincent Gallo is an American cannibal visiting Paris with his new bride in cult director Claire ("Beau Travail") Denis' artfully gruesome head-scratcher that provoked a love-hate reaction from TIFF audiences.
"The Believer": ***1/2 As a Jewish Nazi recruited into an underground right-wing movement, Ryan Gosling pulls off the impossible feat of being thoroughly despicable while breaking your heart at the same time. This controversial Sundance hit is the real "American History X."
"World Traveler": ***1/2 The spirit of "Five Easy Pieces" lives on in Bart Freundlich's extremely accomplished, unexpectedly moving tale of a man (Billy Crudup) who abandons his family for the open road. As a lost soul he meets on his journey, Julianne Moore is astonishing.
"Amelie From Montmartre": **** Enchanting gamine Audrey Tautou is the title character in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's sublime magical-realist fairy tale that broke records in France and looks certain to duplicate its European success domestically for Miramax.
"The Grey Zone": ** Some good actors (including Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and a surprisingly effective David Arquette) are squandered on this static, talky Holocaust drama about Jews who aided Nazis at Auschwitz. Worthy true-life subject; pedestrian treatment.
"Carving Out Our Name": ** "Real World"-ish documentary about four young actors/roommates (including "American Beauty's" Wes Bentley) filmed over several years. Although indulgent and overlong, this could make a serviceable cable movie with some judicious cutting.
"Monsoon Wedding": **1/2 Boisterous, broadly-played Indian comedy by Mira ("Mississippi Masala") Nair about a meteorologically challenged wedding reception won the Golden Lion in Venice this month. It should be an "East is East"-style arthouse hit for USA Films next year.
"Lovely and Amazing": **** This year's "You Can Count on Me." Nicole ("Walking and Talking") Holofcener's ensemble dramedy about a mother (Brenda Blethyn) and her troubled daughters (Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, and Raven Goodwin) was the loveliest and most quietly amazing film I saw at TIFF.
"The Triumph of Love": *1/2 Distracting modernist touches (handheld camera work; natural sound; etc.) dampen the lush production values in this chaotic, buffoonish rendering of the classic 1732 Marivaux play starring Oscar winners Mira Sorvino and Ben Kingsley.
"Birthday Girl": *** Russian mail-order bride/con woman Nicole Kidman shakes up staid banker Ben Chaplin's life with predictable, if entertaining results: Think 1986's Melanie Griffith-Jeff Daniels cult classic "Something Wild" with accents.
"Taking Sides": *** U.S. Army Major Harvey Keitel tries to pin Nazi complicity charges on celebrated German conductor Stellan Skarsgard in Oscar-winning "Mephisto" director Istvan Szabo's compelling, well-crafted translation of Ronald Harwood's play.
"Kissing Jessica Stein": ***1/2 A Jewish Sandra Dee (the very Diane Keaton-ish Jennifer Westfeldt) decides to give lesbianism a try after several failed heterosexual relationships. Fox Searchlight has a sleeper on their hands with this delectable TIFF discovery.
"The Fluffer": **1/2 The unrequited love of a production assistant for an adult film star, set against the fringes of the Los Angeles porn industry, is witty and sharply observed until making a regrettable detour into unconvincing melodrama.
"Revolution #9": *** Gutsy, uncompromising indie about a paranoid schizophrenic (Michael Risley) who sees conspiracies everywhere does for mental illness what "Requiem for a Dream" did for drug addiction -- makes it vividly, harrowingly real. Youngstowner Michael Morley has a small role.
"Enigma": *** British mathematicians in love (Kate Winslet, Dougray Scott and Saffron Burrows) try breaking the Nazi's code during WW II: satisfying classical filmmaking from director Michael Apted ("Tomorrow Never Dies"), produced by Mick Jagger.
"Brotherhood of the Wolf": ***1/2 Horror flick? Costume drama? Martial arts actioner? This robustly entertaining French blockbuster defies easy categorization. U.S. distributor Universal is hoping for a breakout hit like similar genre-bender, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
"La Pianiste": **** Envelope-pushing adult drama about a piano teacher (a courageous, Cannes-awarded performance by Isabelle Huppert) involved in a sado-masochistic relationship with her student. The graphic sexual content should earn it an NC-17 rating.
"Last Orders": **** Bracingly humanistic: a warm, funny story about lifelong friends (including Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins) burying an old buddy. Not quite a British "Big Chill," but Fred ("Roxanne") Schepisi's small treasure could become a contemporary classic.
"Strumpet" and "Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise": **** Director Danny Boyle returns to his gnarly "Trainspotting" roots with two edgily confrontational mini movies (72 and 76 minutes respectively) starring Christopher Eccleston and Timothy Spall. Both actors are superb, and these are the best works of Boyle's career.
"Lantana": ***1/2 Provocative, strangely hypnotic "Magnolia"/"Short Cuts"-derived Australian film about a group of strangers linked by a murder. Ray Lawrence's first feature in 16 years features standout performances from Barbara Hershey, Anthony LaPaglia, and Geoffrey Rush.
"Training Day": ***1/2 Denzel Washington scores as a corrupt Los Angeles narcotics cop whose idealistic trainee (an equally terrific Ethan Hawke) gets more of an education than he bargained for: despite an unsatisfying climax, this gritty urban drama ranks among the year's best Hollywood movies.

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