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CINEMATIC OPPOSITES AT TORONTO 98

Films at opposite ends of the cinema spectrum seem to be the hallmark of the highly colourful Toronto Film Festival; Paul Fischer files a selection of capsule reviews.

THE RED VIOLIN (Opening Film)
Even its stellar international cast headed by the diverse likes of Carlo Cecchi, Greta Scacchi, Jason Flemyng, Samuel L. Jackson and Canadian film maker/actor Don McKellar, couldn't save this pretentious and dull film. The Red Violin traces the epic history of the last violin created by 17th century violinist Nicolo Bussotti (Cecchi). After the premature death of his pregnant wife, Bussotti created this masterpiece as a testament to her memory, and from generation to generation, across continents, the violin passes into a variety hands, symbolising passion, independence and rebellion amongst those who attained it, right until the modern age. Though beautifully photographed in Italy, Austria, Shanghai, Oxford and Montreal, the film has an uncomfortably disjointed feel to it. The most astonishing segment is that of 1940s Communist China, with director Girard painstakingly recreating a passionate and rebellious period. Overall, the film is too patchy to sustain general interest for contemporary audiences.

PECKER
Irreverent director John Waters unveiled his latest film, the all-too-quirky Pecker. Edward Furlong [Terminator 2] plays a small-town amateur photographer, who relentlessly clicks away at the realities of day-to-day life in his small Baltimore town. Those who either happily or otherwise allow their drudge lives to be photographed include his girlfriend (Christina Ricci in another standout performance), who takes her job as manager of the local laundromat way too seriously; his pro-gay sister (an unrecognisable Martha Plimpton) who works in the neighbourhood gay strip club, his oddball parents and his screechy, sugar junkie youngest sister. The small town photographer makes it big in New York and has to cope with the pressures of celebrity. Pecker is a droll affair, loose and hip, but eventually finds itself running out of steam before its abrupt conclusion.

WITHOUT LIMITS
Without Limits was produced by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, and is the second film to revolve around the short but exhilarating life of American track star Steve Prefontaine. The first film from Disney came and went without a trace, and was never released theatrically in Australia. Whether this new interpretation of the runner's life follows a similar fate, remains to be seen. However, it's a far more impressive film than its predecessor is. Billy Crudup gives a superb performance as the obsessive and arrogant athlete, who learns much from his tough but paternal coach (Donald Sutherland). Directed with a consistent energy by co-screenwriter Robert Towne, Without Limits is a superlative work, energetic, emotionally rich without resorting to either sentiment or undue nationalistic claptrap. Without Limits is an exciting and enthralling film, which represents the very best that American cinema, has to offer.

PRAISE
Based on the novel of the same name, this relentlessly tough tale of the sexual relationship between a chain-smoking asthmatic and a sexually addicted barmaid takes far too much time to really develop. Structurally, Praise is inconsistent, a series of overdone, sexually graphic vignettes that fail to enhance either narrative or a detailed sense of character. But the film's major flaw is the casting of singer Peter Fenton as the complex asthmatic, Gordon. Fenton has a brooding, but uncharismatic presence, whose underplaying leads him to emerge as a wallowing, self-piteous character, consistently overshadowed by Cynthia, played with an audacious brilliance by Sacha Horler. Hers is a physically unattractive character, and Horler's raw, uncompromising work, is what gives the film its major strength. To be fair to the film, Praise is still a brave and demanding work, but unlike the similarly tough Head On, lacks an actor with as much range and power to carry the film.

HILARY & JACKIE
Aussie actress Rachel Griffiths gives a stunning performance in the new British drama, Hilary and Jackie, the true story of two sisters, one a flautist, the other a cellist, and what it is that binds the pair. A tragedy with sly doses of humour, Hilary and Jackie is sentimental and mawkish at times, but in its complex study of the passionate, and at times complex, nature of the relationship between the two siblings [told from each other's perspective], Hilary and Jackie is beautifully realised. In the more emotionally challenging role of Jackie, Emily Watson gives the performance of the year, and she's matched by the fine, subtle and beautifully human work of Griffiths. This is a remarkable, exquisitely crafted film that cries out for a broad audience.

LIVING OUT LOUD
Living Out Loud is the directorial debut of screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and it's almost enough to forgive him the horror that was The Mirror Has Two Faces. Holly Hunter plays Judith, a nurse who finds herself alone after 16 years of marriage. She is suffocated by loneliness and finds a friend in doorman Danny DeVito, also a lonely, unhappy camper. Living Out Loud was one of the early surprises at this Festival. A sexy, smart and droll comedy/drama, the film allows DeVito the chance to deliver his finest performance to date, in terms of humour and pathos. Hunter is sexy, funny and brilliant and the film crackles with interesting characters and a freshness rarely seen in American films.

HAPPINESS
Love it or hate it, Welcome to the Dollhouse writer/director Todd Soldonz' second effort -- the ironically entitled Happiness -- is one of the most strikingly original and morally wrenching visions to hit the festival in years. Set in a world filled with people whose lives have been utterly stunted by the conventions of socially acceptable behaviour, its only likeable characters are a child whose goal in life is to ejaculate, a woman universally considered a hopeless loser and a psychiatrist wrestling with his own long-repressed desire to commit pedophile rape. Happiness is a disturbing, savagely dark and uncomfortably funny work that may prove too much for some audiences. The sequences dealing with the children are sometimes over-the-top, including the final one. But it is a fascinating and compelling piece, a film about characters on the periphery of mainstream society, but in their own unique ways, searching for emotional fulfillment. The ensemble cast gives uniformly stunning performances, and is bound to cause a sensation when released in Australia by Dendy Films later this year.

THE MIGHTY
For me, The Mighty was one of the best films at the Festival. The film revolves around Maxwell Cane (Elden Henson), a rather unfortunate 13-year-old, who's huge, slow and uncourageous. When Kevin Dillon (Kieran Culkin), a boy physically disabled by disease but also abled by fearlessness, brains and imagination, moves in next door the two forms a bond. One needs legs and the other needs brains. Together they imagine themselves to be a mighty knight of Arthur's round table, charged with righting the wrongs around them. The Mighty is flawlessly directed by British director Peter Chelsom [Hear my Song]. With its intelligent, beautifully literate screenplay, and the director's visually fluid style, this magnificent film is the finest study of childhood in years. Painstakingly honest, emotive without resorting to manipulative sentimentality, The Mighty focuses on an extraordinary relationship between two children considered outsiders, creating two masterful characters that propel forward the film's humorous and touching narrative. The Mighty takes a fresh approach to the Arthurian legend, seen from the perspective of contemporary youth, which use the legends as a means to symbolise their own courage in a sea of adversity.

NO
After the annoying misstep of Le Polygraphe, iconoclastic filmmaker Robert Lepage is back in stride with his latest and most assured film to date, Nô. Sophie (Anne-Marie Cadieux) is a pregnant Quebecois actress representing Canada during the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka. Back at home, meanwhile, her separatist-sympathiser boyfriend Michel has been caught up in the fallout of Trudeau's War Measures Act. Sophie's life soon degenerates into a series of alcohol-laden sexual hijinks, which seem to mimic the Feydeau farce she's performing. Inspired in part by Lepage's play Seven Streams of the River Ota, the movie is a beautifully structured, at times hilariously satiric look not only at acting, theatre and politics, but the role of women in the early seventies. Cadieux gives a sublime performance, and Lepage's direction lacks the sense of pretentious self-consciousness that plagued his earlier work.

A SIMPLE PLAN
A Simple Plan is a masterful film noir thriller. Bill Paxton stars as a hardware store employee and Billy Bob Thornton is his slightly retarded brother. The brothers and a thuggish friend stumble upon a plane wreck and $4 million. Aided by Bridget Fonda, Paxton's wife, the men struggle to keep the money hidden. Ultimately, people start turning against each other, and the brothers' trust begins to disappear. The downward spiral of their lives of the characters is perfectly explained. Engrossing, chilling and a fascinating portrait of greed and relationships, the film sets up interesting family situations, where all is not what it seems. Strikingly directed by an assured Sam Raimi, and featuring standout work by Paxton and Thornton, A Simple Plan is a masterful entertainment, which will be released in Australia by REP Films later this year.

WAKING NED DEVINE
The Irish comedy Waking Ned Devine, was one of the Festival's major crowd-pleasers. In a small Irish village, someone has won the Lotto. It turns out to be Ned Devine, but he dies out of shock. So the village has one of its members pretend that they are old Ned, and claim the huge winnings for themselves. At times very funny but also beautifully realised, Waking Ned Devine is a major surprise, a film that examinees the nature of greed, but not in the cold way of something such as A Simple Plan. This is the kind of comedy only the Irish could get away with, and get away with it they do - to sublime perfection. This is a joyous, unforgettable work, featuring masterful performances and a great script.

ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
Film noir is also represented in Larry Clark's Another Day in Paradise, an unexpectedly strong film from the director of Kids. Revolving around two young junkies taken under the wing by a volatile thief (played with gritty perfection by James Woods) and his junkie girlfriend (Melanie Griffith in her best performance in years), Another Day in Paradise is a powerful crime thriller laced with a sardonic humour and a pulsating, energetic and colourful tone. It's an assured, well-crafted gem from this controversial ex-crim and filmmaker.

ELIZABETH
The film received mixed praise at Toronto, but all agreed that Cate Blanchett delivers an Oscar calibre performance as Elizabeth I. Despite some historical problems, the film remains a masterfully crafted and visually stunning work, that moves beautifully and gives one a remarkable view of the period. Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush steal the film, which is a dramatically outstanding and compelling work.

ANTZ (Closing Film)
There was much drama at Toronto, so how nice it was for the Festival to end with the animated comedy, Antz. Technically a whiz, the film is a hilarious study of conformity, with an ant colony used to symbolise the masses. Woody Allen is an unlikely hero, but he pulls it off to perfection. The film was widely applauded - proof, that one doesn't need intellectual pretensions to be included in a Festival such as this. (Antz opens in Australia on October 29,1998.)

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The Toronto International Festival is truly what it's name suggests, a festival in which the world converges on this Canadian city, and for 10 days, cultures collide, the independent arena competes with the studio muscle, and the movies reign supreme. A special thanks to the Press Office of the Festival, for ensuring that this Festival ran as smoothly as it did. With over 300 films here, they did a spectacular job.
Paul Fischer

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THE RED VIOLIN
PECKER
WITHOUT LIMITS
PRAISE
HILARY & JACKIE
LIVING OUT LOUD
HAPPINESS
THE MIGHTY
NO
A SIMPLE PLAN
WAKING NED DEVINE
ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
ELIZABETH
ANTZ

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