Conflicts highlight film fest

Strife: Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival deal with physical and emotional struggles.

September 20, 2001|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TORONTO - Before terrorist attacks made the Toronto International Film Festival an afterthought, the better movies to emerge here highlighted personalized violence. How they will connect with weary audiences in the coming months can only be guessed.

But it is no accident that the more effective offerings revolved around a criminal act perpetrated by one person against another. Victim and villain were already linked. The crime ratcheted up the tension, not the body count.

Horrific in real life, images of mass destruction on-screen rarely grab an audience in a meaningful way. Perhaps that is why the festival has tried to avoid popcorn fare in its 26 years, reserving its autumn platform to films that hew to a prime tenet of storytelling: emphasizing the particular to illuminate the general.

Lantana weaves infidelity and grief into a taut tapestry. Ray Lawrence's Altman-like ensemble with Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia and Barbara Hershey should be remembered. The director has fashioned a melodrama for smart people.

Everyone tiptoes around intimacy in a Sydney suburb. LaPaglia's cop tries so hard to avoid connecting with his wife that he runs head-on into his own inadequacies. A murder investigation pulls him deeper into an affair, but he is just going through the motions.

Meanwhile, shell shock threatens the attorney played by Rush and his wife (a revitalized Hershey), a therapist who has written a book about the murder of their child. They try to glue together the shards of their marriage with the mundane, but momentum is its own character in Lantana. When tough guy LaPaglia blubbers into the steering wheel after a tough day on the job, his tears are not wasted.

The alleged crime is almost incidental in Patrick Stettner's The Business of Strangers. Goaded on by a tough and tattooed Ivy leaguer (Julia Stiles) whom she fired and then befriended, a middle-aged executive (Stockard Channing) works out her bitterness in a hazy night of female bonding at an airport hotel. Stiles has spotted a man whom she says once raped her. Is vengeance theirs?

Stiles, an Ivy Leaguer herself at Columbia, has always been sassier and smarter than the teen-movie roles that have made her popular with pre-teen girls. In Strangers she gets to play sassy, smart - maybe even psychotic.

In the Bedroom is generating talk of an Academy Award nomination for Sissy Spacek as a wife who finds her marriage to Tom Wilkinson unraveling after the murder of their son. The killing occurs off-screen. The victims we become acquainted with do not bleed, but their love for each other drains like a wound. Despite New Englanders' reputation as even-keeled folk, Todd Field's eloquent movie shows they can smolder and ignite with the best of them.

From Hell deals with mayhem on a larger scale, but the artful saga comes with a historical filter. Its subject, Jack the Ripper, went on a killing spree of prostitutes in the late 19th century. The co-directors, Allen and Albert Hughes, create a stunning palette of gray, crimson and black, intercut with hazy images of carnage. Everything is in a fog, from the coal-choked streets of London to the opium-addled mind of Johnny Depp's Inspector Abberline. Too much conspiracy theory involving the Crown and Freemasons slows down From Hell, but its visuals hook you long before that.

The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) endured five grueling years to break out of their urban-black milieu, only to find in their research that prejudice thrived among the most proper Victorians.

"The dirty laundry of the film is the class structure in British society and how degrading that can be," Allen Hughes said.

Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, about Jews who received privileges for helping with the extermination of other Jews in the Nazi death camps, provides no barrier to its atrocities. Claustrophobic and grim, The Grey Zone will be a tough sell. Dozens walked out of a screening. The clipped, Mamet-style dialogue is a distraction.

The most Oscar hype revolved around Denzel Washington in Training Day, a morality play that tumbles toward the absurd. Washington overplays a rogue narcotics cop who brings a rookie (Ethan Hawke) along for the ride on the South Central beat. The problem isn't watching the normally heroic Washington be a bad guy; it's watching him be a one-dimensional bad guy. The violence in Training Day is meant to be personal, but its excess alienates.

Another acting giant, Richard Harris, tries restraint as the scion of a Liverpool crime clan in My Kingdom, but the story's dwelling on the old man's relationship with his neglected grandson dilutes the power struggle. The movie strives for a higher tone than The Sopranos, and maybe that's its problem.

One of the festival's more popular movies, Joy Ride, about a trucker who terrorizes three kids just trying to get home, has a smart drive-in movie feel and two appealing young actors, Leelee Sobieski and Steve Zahn. But instead of having the prey become the predator, Joy Ride limps to another conclusion.

Revenge movies demand revenge. As we have discovered since Sept. 11, our enemies in real life are not always apparent. But on-screen, we know that a bloodthirsty CB operator driving a black rig must be dealt with before the lights go up.

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