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Toronto festival grows from afterthought to major event on the cinematic calendar


TORONTO -- When Toronto and Montreal, the sibling rivals of Canadian cities, both started film festivals within a year of each other in the mid-1970s, all the odds for lasting success seemed to favor Montreal. That city was exciting and romantic, possessed of both European sophistication and the glamour of a French-speaking population, while Toronto was, well, Toronto.

While the Montreal festival has done fine, thank you very much, it pales before the 335-film colossus that is Toronto. Which is nothing to be ashamed of, because, though they don't like to hear this in Los Angeles, San Francisco and especially New York, this city's Festival of Festivals, which opened over the weekend, has in fact become the pre-eminent film showcase on the entire North American continent, the one to go to if you're only going to one.

Family reunion

Living up to its name, Toronto functions as kind of a family reunion of festivals, scooping up films that have played at other sites and displaying them in one tidy locale. The crowd-pleasing Australian "Strictly Ballroom" and John Turturro's "Mac" are here from Cannes, the independent and proud of it "Reservoir Dogs" and "Zebrahead" trekked in from Park City, Utah. Kenneth Branagh's "Peter's Friends" and the ultra-low-budget "El Mariachi" made the trip from Telluride, Colo.

Which is not to say that a lot of films don't premiere here. Some, such as John Sayles' latest, "Passion Fish," and Paul Cox's "The Nun and the Bandit," are on the independent side, but Toronto is especially notable because of the large number of films that traditionally festival-shy studios allow to premiere here in the splendid, 80-year-old restored Elgin Theater. This year, for instance, the Hollywood contingent includes such big-ticket .

items as Billy Crystal's "Mr. Saturday Night," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and Robert Redford's "A River Runs Through It."

What, then, is the reason for Toronto's success? How did it go from an afterthought on the world's cinematic calendar to what the current issue of a local alternative publication jokingly describes as "The Festival That Ate My Eyes." It's Huge! It's Here! It's the Incredible True Story of the Walking Dead Who Tried to Survive the Festival of Festivals"?

According to Helga Stephenson, the festival's executive director, lot of it has to do with community flavor, the way Toronto is as a city."

For one thing, while Toronto has gotten increasingly sophisticated and multicultural as the years have gone on, its downtown remains both user friendly and compact, making shuttling between the festival's 15 theaters no problem at all. Also, as opposed to its terminally blase rivals, Toronto has

retained enough of the flavor of an aw-shucks small town to be genuinely excited about the festival's presence. And the city also just happens to be movie crazy, boasting the third-largest film-going audience in North America, and treating the festival like a long-lost relative who just blew into town.

And it is that Toronto audience, so convivial they are reputed to turn even standing in line into a celebration, so accepting (250,000 admissions last year) that no film need feel like an orphan, that has made the festival's reputation, and encouraged Hollywood to display its wares here.

Positive ambience'

"It's a positive ambience. It doesn't have the stigma of an art festival," said one studio executive who exhibited here. "The people are nice. Not like New York, where the atmosphere is cutting and there is such a sense of people trying to outdo one another."

Given the good feeling the festival inspires, it is curious to have to report that three of the more interesting films shown during the opening weekend prominently featured guns and violence as part of their game plan.

Hands-down winner as to the most mayhem is, not surprisingly "Hard Boiled," the latest from the irrepressible virtuoso of violence, John Woo. A veteran of the populist Hong Kong cinema who has become a critical favorite, Mr. Woo's films invariably feature veritable hurricanes of explosive violence, dazzlingly shot massacres on a scale huge enough to intimidate a dozen Dirty Harrys. Fun in a pulpy way, despite a plot with more holes in it than one of Woo's innumerable shootout victims.

Minuscule budget

The title for most bullets on a budget goes to "El Mariachi," shot by 24-year-old Robert Rodriguez in 14 days on a budget so low ($7,000) that there was no money for even a single retake. The story of two men who enter a sleepy Mexican town with identical guitar cases, one containing an instrument, the other a small arsenal, "El Mariachi" is Sergio Leone on the cheap, with elements of Japanese samurai series (like "Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman") thrown in as well. Shot in Spanish for that language's video market, the film's rough charm, its breezy blend of violence and humor, was promising enough to get Rodriguez a two-year contract at Columbia.

Also a first film, not much more expensive ($38,000) but noticeably more accomplished, is Nick Gomez's "Laws of Gravity." An edgy, urgent piece of work set among the petty hoodlums and junior league hard guys of Brooklyn's Greenpoint section, "Gravity" has the benefit of on-the-nose ensemble acting and exceptional cinema verite camera work by Jean De Segonzac. Like most of Toronto's films, it has been seen elsewhere (it is currently playing theatrically in New York and will open in Los Angeles on Sept. 30), but the fact that you can see it here is one of the reasons for the festival's prominence. And if it were not for the festival, one local film critic wrote, presumably with tongue somewhat in cheek, "Toronto would just be another town in Canada."

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