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Festival hit its marks


TORONTO -- Many critics said the Toronto International Film Festival offered a healthy crop of good, but not great, movies. That qualifies Toronto, which concluded yesterday, as a success; for any festival to have more watchable features than artistic misfires is an exception.

The disputed line between good and great was embodied in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid. Haynes' thorough job of re-creating the Technicolor melodramas of the late 1950s prompted a heated debate over whether he is a great filmmaker or a great mimic.

A few works earned more of a consensus: Australian Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, the simple tale of an aborigine girl (Everlyn Jampi) who wants to go home, tugged the heart strings without manipulation.

Frida justified Salma Hayek's seven-year quest to get it made. In Julie Taynor, Hayek found the right director to bring the actress' portrayal of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to life. When Hayek arrived on the set, she said, "I was so fragile and emotional about everything, like a pregnant woman about to give birth."

Major movie factories kept their Oscar tub-thumping from sounding tinny. Disney's Moonlight Mile showed there is still room for the life-affirming Hollywood drama. Perhaps the reason this one works is that director Brad Silberling wrote it from the heart. Silberling's fiancee, actress Rebecca Shaeffer, was stalked to her death in 1989.

In Moonlight Mile, a would-be groom (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to make a life with his in-laws-to-be (Susan Sarandon and Dustin Hoffman) after his bride is murdered. The 65-year-old Hoffman found the material compelling enough to return after a self-imposed three-year absence from the screen.

"I didn't like the work I was being offered," he said. "The films that interested me were on the so-called independent level and I couldn't get them. I didn't want to take an ad out in Variety, so what could I do?"

Warner Bros.' White Oleander made the chick flick palatable for both genders. Michelle Pfeiffer downplayed Oscar hype for her performance, mentioning the criticism that her prison-mama character stays too pretty while behind bars. Robin Wright Penn and Renee Zellweger injected star power in supporting roles. Alison Lohman, playing Pfeiffer's daughter who's shuffled from one foster home to another, was one of the festival's brightest newcomers.

Phone Booth heralded a pleasing change of pace from Joel Schumacher. The Batman & Robin director took one setting, a Times Square phone booth, and sustained the tension throughout a sleazy publicist's battle of wits with a sniper. Offscreen, Phone Booth hunk Colin Farrell kept Toronto buzzing with his reported forays into a strip club.

One prominent actor tried to spread his wings. Pierce Brosnan scuttled James Bond for an ordinary man in 1950s Ireland who fights for custody of his children in Evelyn. "I try to look for that because I have to," Brosnan said, "or otherwise they'd have me doing pale imitations of Bond. I was trained as an actor to play many different roles."

The reaction to Evelyn was mixed, but Brosnan's personal connection to the material is apparent. He was a widowed single father for years, after the 1991 death of his first wife, actress Cassandra Harris.

Greg Kinnear, who has subsisted on light supporting roles, polarized opinion with his portrayal of the late actor Bob Crane in Auto Focus. Crane earned minor celebrity for Hogan's Heroes and major headlines for making home movies of his sexual exploits before his murder.

Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things strayed from the comfort zone with rousing impact. Imagine a story set in London without one British character and a plot hinging on an illegal organ-transplant ring in a seedy hotel. Frears brought the elements together in fine style.

When a Turkish immigrant played by Audrey Tautou (Amelie) tells a Nigerian immigrant, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that she loves him, it carries the rare ring of truth.

A neophyte director, Denzel Washington, adhered to the basics. Washington trained the camera on his eponymous subject, Antwone Fisher, and let the feel-good story unfold without calling attention to his Academy Award-winning self.

Makers of the Sept. 11-based movies should have taken a lesson from Washington. Both The Guys, about a fire captain eulogizing his fallen charges, and 11'9"01, a French-produced collection of shorts, tried to say too much.

All the build-up to the one-year anniversary of the attacks could not have helped. Give the world's top filmmakers another year to digest the tragedy and then let 'em loose again. Most of the best movies about Pearl Harbor and other calamities weren't made until years later.

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