Toronto filmfest focuses on maverick characters

From a fantastic vampire to karaoke lovers, quirky stories abound

This is the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival, but its organizers have such a large array of important new pictures to trot out - and so many critics, industry insiders, and everyday moviegoers to view them - that they're hardly bothering with the self-congratulation such birthdays call for.

The screening rooms here have been hopping from early morning until long past midnight, and everyone seems to agree that's the best way to celebrate this important milestone for North America's most widely influential film event.

It's hard to generalize about such a crowded and varied program, but a couple of trends have emerged. One is a tendency for filmmakers to focus on characters so hungry for richer, more exciting lives that they're willing to risk their security for some new, untested path.

That's the theme linking the subplots in Duets, a festival attraction that seems bound for box-office glory. Paul Giamatti plays a real-estate developer who realizes the futility of his money-driven life and heads for the highway with no particular destination. He teams up with a desperado (Andr Braugher) who's running from a more literal kind of prison. What brings them together with the movie's other characters is a taste for karaoke singing, a ready-made metaphor for the notion that life's true pleasures may have little to do with professional ambition.

"Duets" is more crisp and calculated than it ought to be, given its wild and woolly characters. Its tangled stories are resolved in disappointingly predictable ways. It has some lively performances and sprightly songs, though. And it gains a bit of family-values interest from the fact that director Bruce Paltrow is the father of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a loose-living young woman getting to know her karaoke-crazy dad (Huey Lewis) for the first time in her life.

There's more emotional and cinematic energy in You Can Count on Me, a good-hearted drama about a small-town businesswoman (Laura Linney) whose irresponsible brother (Mark Ruffalo) drifts back into her life, causing complications for her and her eight-year-old son. This film's modest budget and quiet humor won't generate as much buzz as "Duets," but it has a more thoughtful screenplay - wittily exploring the proposition that too much dullness can be as dangerous as too much wildness. Matthew Broderick is perfect as a fastidious bank manager.

An interest in maverick personalities makes a different kind of appearance in E. Elias Merhige's eerie Shadow of the Vampire, an utterly original horror yarn. In the most highly inventive performance of his highly inventive career, Willem Dafoe plays Max Schreck, the German actor who starred in "Nosferatu," a classic vampire film directed by F.W. Murnau in the early 1920s. The new movie's twist is the notion that Schreck was a real vampire who agreed to play Count Dracula in return for a bite of the leading lady's neck! It's an outlandish fantasy that could turn into a real sleeper when it opens this winter.

Fine acting also distinguishes Pollock, directed by and starring Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock, the American artist whose trailblazing discovery - that dripping, pouring, and splashing paint can be a potent way to express inner energies - dynamized abstract painting in the 1940s and '50s. Harris shows little adventurousness in his directing, which sticks to standard bio-pic formulas. But his portrayal of Pollock vividly conveys the painter's wild mood swings and consecrated attitude toward his work. Marcia Gay Harden is even better as Lee Krasner, the long-suffering wife who was also a top-grade artist.

A minitrend at Toronto was a spate of mock documentaries, beginning with Stardom, which opened the festival with its occasionally amusing account of an obscure Canadian woman who becomes a supermodel at the expense of her youthful innocence. Far funnier is Best in Show, an improvised comedy about the dog-show set - surely the year's only film to reveal what happens when a weimaraner loses its favorite toy, why ventriloquism is more rewarding than fly fishing, and what dancing is like when your partner really does have two left feet. It's not great cinema, but it's hilarious.

Back on the art-film front, the Mexican melodrama Amores Perros takes a darker look at dogs, telling three interlocked stories about canines who'd be better off if they'd never encountered the human race. It's heading for American theaters (Sept. 22-Oct. 9) after a stop at the coming New York Film Festival, which will also present early US showings of Liv Ullmann's drama Faithless, based on an intense Ingmar Bergman screenplay about a woman whose infidelity plunges her marriage into chaos. All were enthusiastically received here.

Rounding out the program were welcome nods to avant-garde films, which explores image and sound without pinning them to conventional stories.

The most extensive such excursion was the Robert Beavers Spotlight, a three-part program I hosted. This marked the first Canadian screenings of films by Beavers, whose exquisitely subtle studies of time, space, and color have earned renown in Europe and in the United States, where the National Society of Film Critics gave him its coveted experimental-film award last year. Nonnarrative works usually get little attention at high-profile festivals, and Toronto's filmfest reconfirmed the breadth and depth of its vision by giving Beavers a place of honor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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