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Canada's Cannes, from duds to gems Who needs the Riviera? Toronto is a great place to have a film festival.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TORONTO -- Canadian writer/director/ actor Don McKellar, whose comedy-drama "Last Night" examines the end of the world through the eyes of several Torontans, enjoys recounting an interview with a snarky French-Canadian journalist who told him, "Toronto is a good place to have the end of the world."

It's an even better place to have a film festival. Year after year, the Toronto International Film Festival offers a smoothly run organization (in contrast to the frenzied zoos of Cannes or Sundance); a vibrant, easily negotiated cosmopolitan setting; and, of course, an absolute glut of movies (311 this year).

One measure of a film festival is the number of revelatory new films it premieres to audiences. On that count, this year fell short - there were very few, if any, surprise breakouts.

All the major award winners and films earning plaudits had been seen earlier at other festivals. Robert Benigni's poignant Holocaust comedy "Life Is Beautiful," which won the Audience Award, previously had won prizes at Cannes and Montreal. Todd Solondz's controversial "Happiness," examining the interconnected lives of a disparate bunch of Jersey losers, caused a sensation at Cannes before winning the critics' award here. Brazilian director Walter Salles' sentimental "Central Station," about an elderly woman who befriends a young boy who has lost his mother, was a runner-up for both audience and critics' awards, after having debuted at Sundance.

Still, Toronto's 23rd film festival had a strong combination of audience-pleasing mainstream fare and foreign gems (and, yes, a number of duds). Here, in no particular order, are some of the more notable experiences of 10 days of intense movie-watching (I saw almost 30 films during the festival).

"Elizabeth" - The smartest film of the festival was director Shekhar Kapur's costume drama with attitude, examining the troubled early years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, when political back-stabbing was literal and sex and religion carried dire consequences. Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth powerfully transforms from a kindly, free-spirited young woman into a steely, cagey ruler, and Geoffrey Rush oozes sinister elan as an elusive spymaster in her inner circle. Gorgeously photographed, designed and edited, "Elizabeth" (opening in November) features ferocious style and energy rarely seen in the genre.

"Rushmore" - From the Texas team that gave us the underappreciated "Bottle Rocket" - director/co-writer Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson - comes this wonderfully eccentric comedy about Max (Jason Schwartzman), a budding playwright of '70s-era docudramas, who allows his copious extracurricular activities at a prep school to destroy his academic record. Further complications ensue when both he and his mentor (Bill Murray) fall for the same teacher (Olivia Williams). Like "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" (opening next February) is silly, poignant and inspired.

Millennium - A half-dozen films unspooled here were part of France's "2000 Seen by ..." collection, a series of movies from around the world riffing on the millennium. The two I saw were among the festival's best. McKellar's "Last Night" won an award for best first-time filmmaker, while Long Island auteur Hal Hartley ("Henry Fool") weighed in with the absolutely hilarious "The Book of Life," an hour-long epic finding a power-suited Jesus (Martin Donovan) visiting New York to finish off the prophecies enumerated in the Book of Revelations, which are maintained in an Apple PowerBook. A scene where Jesus and Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) discuss theology and man's plight over vodka shots may have been the single funniest of the whole festival.

Sibling revelry - Two top-notch biopics featured guys who sleep with two sisters who are OK with it. John Boorman's "The General" examined the life of Martin Cahill, one of Ireland's cagiest and most colorful gangsters, who had children by both his wife and her sister. (Boorman reports that he personally was a victim of one of Cahill's crime sprees - his gold record for the "Deliverance" sound track album was stolen; the incident is incorporated into his film.) In "Hilary and Jackie," flamboyant cellist Jacqueline du Pre persuades her sister - who had watched her own childhood talent as a flutist get eclipsed by her younger sibling - to let her sleep with Hilary's husband when Jackie's marriage falters.

The longest day - I began Thursday, Sept. 17, with the controversial "Happiness," an NC-17-rated provocation which, most notoriously, includes a character who is a pederast - the very idea upset even some veteran industry attendees - and ended it with writer-director Gary Ross' Capraesque "Pleasantville," widely considered the best studio film on display at the festival. Interestingly, sweet as it is, "Pleasantville" points to how we got to "Happiness."

Ross' film concerns two '90s teens from a broken home who get zapped into a clean-cut '50s TV sitcom. At various points, they find solace in the innocence of the era. But, as they effect soulful awakenings in the townspeople (beautifully evoked by having characters and objects transform into vibrant color in their black-and-white world), they also discover how the era's repression hid buried hostilities - and how artistic expression, no matter how "dangerous" it was considered, was necessary to create greater understanding of one another.

Solondz's sometimes thoughtful explorations of abject characters in "Happiness," it can therefore be argued, may help society face down yet another ugly secret that has long been swept under the carpet.

Don McKellar - McKellar was represented by no fewer than six films. Two were shorts; one was a showing of the acclaimed "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould," which he co-wrote; another was "The Herd," in which he appeared; he also wrote and appeared in (with Samuel L. Jackson) the opening-night-gala film, "The Red Violin," a "Gould"-like film following the centuries-long "life" of the title instrument as it passes from owner to owner; and "Last Night," one of the fest's favorites. (Lion's Gate will distribute the last two films in America.)

Great performances - Emily Watson was electrifying as the beloved cellist who contracted multiple sclerosis in the moving "Hilary and Jackie." Brendan Gleeson was a blistering presence as "The General." And former Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney gave perhaps the fest's most hilarious supporting performance as a dog trainer far more empathetic to pooches than people in the otherwise slight romantic comedy "Dog Park."

Global Hollywoodization - Deepa Mehta's "Earth" is an involving, intelligent look at the violent fractionalization of the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh populations in 1947 India. Nonetheless, it's structured like Hollywood gloss, complete with a love scene set to an Indian pop ballad. German filmmaker Tom Tykwer proved, with his seedy-lovers-in-peril yarn, "Run Lola Run" (acquired by Sony Classics), that frenetic, MTV-style editing and sketchy characterizations aren't just an American phenomenon. The souffle-light Irish comedy "Waking Ned Divine," about the oddball troubles that befall a small town when someone there turns up with a winning lottery ticket, was frequently called a more commercial "The Full Monty" - meaning that the earlier film's underpinnings of social disaffection are ignored.

"Sporty Spice actually has a lot of talent" - (Actually overheard at the opening-night party.) Parties filled with inane chatter are a necessary evil of festivals, but does anyone really enjoy them?

Case in point: The "Permanent Midnight" fete was held in one of those poorly lighted, ear-splitting industrial discos designed to squelch all human interaction. The "elite" area containing the stars was sardine-packed and oxygen-free, compared with the nominally more spacious area reserved for the hoi polloi, so who got the better of that deal?

"Guantanamera" - The song got a workout in Toronto, turning up in "Rushmore" as well as in DreamWorks' entertaining animated fable "Antz," where Woody Allen and Sharon Stone's characters dance to a Muzak version. Most memorably, it's in "Last Night," where Don McKellar and Sandra Oh share their last seconds on Earth listening to Pete Seeger's rendition - with guns pointed at each other's heads.

It's a moment both strangely comic and deeply resonant, and single-handedly underscores the wide variety of emotions and sensations film festivals such as Toronto can bring audiences.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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