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Laid-Back, Loving It in Toronto

Movies: The city's film fest has grown so big that the best way to enjoy it is to sit back and let individual tastes be one's guide.

September 08, 1997|JOHN ANDERSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TORONTO — Call it the Toronto Paradox. While plenty of film festivals are concerned about becoming too big, too unwieldy and too uptight, the Toronto International Film Festival is a fairly laid-back movie universe, precisely because it is so big: No one can get a grip on the entire festival, so they stop trying and just enjoy the ride.

"Everyone can create their own festival," said Piers Handling, the festival's director, who added that because the festival doesn't give out prizes, the atmosphere is much looser. "We're a different kettle of fish from the competitive festivals."

Having opened Thursday and running through Saturday, TIFF is presenting 233 features--281 films in all--and has become one of the major film events in the world. "I think in terms of the pecking order of international festivals that we're at the top of the heap," Handling said. "We're not Cannes yet, but we're in the top three," the other two being Cannes and Berlin.

Eleven public theaters are showing five movies a day, and that's a lot of movies. Something, as they say, for everyone.

"Are you in a good mood?" actor Gary Oldman ("The Fifth Element," "Air Force One") asked a worshipful Friday night crowd at Toronto's Uptown theater.

"This," he said--motioning at the screen behind him--"will fix that."

What followed was Oldman's directorial debut, "Nil by Mouth," a powerful, neatly executed, but harrowing drama about lower-middle-class Brits hamstrung by drugs, booze and domestic violence of a most brutal nature; when certain things happened on screen, certain members of the audience seemed spring-loaded, bolting from their seats and heading for the exits. The vast majority stayed, however, and saw a pretty terrific film in the tradition of Oldman's compatriots Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

Oldman--who materialized at his screening like Harry Lime in "The Third Man"--was just one of the stars populating Toronto. The place, quite frankly, is crawling with "celebutantes." Michael Moore, director of "Roger & Me" and television's "TV Nation," was escorting his new film "The Big One," and his parents about town; Bob Saget, the "America's Funniest Home Videos" guy, is here, because he's directing a film (a comedy called "Dirty Work"). Christopher MacDonald, "Leave It to Beaver's" Ward Cleaver, was spotted, as was William Hurt ("Loved") and directors Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter") and Michael Apted ("Inspirations").

Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger were late arriving to John Sayles' new Spanish-language "Men With Guns" because Basinger's festival favorite, "L.A. Confidential," was late starting. Sayles didn't come to his own party. Neil Young was rumored to be in town, because Jim Jarmusch's documentary about him--"Year of the Horse"--was debuting Sunday night. New movies by Antonia Bird, Agnieszka Holland, Philip Haas, Sally Potter, Michael Winterbottom, Wayne Wang, Alan Rudolph and Frank Oz are stacking up like jets over an airfield.

Reality can intrude on this happy scene, of course: 3,500 people saw the Saturday sunrise inside the SkyDome, where the Blue Jays usually play and where the funeral of Princess Diana was broadcast on the stadium's Jumbotron screen. Given its British heritage, Toronto may have mourned a bit more than other cities.

But life--which in this case means movies--continues unabated. They ranged from an ascetic Austrian version of Kafka's "The Castle" to the buoyant gay-themed comedy "Ma Vie en Rose" to the gassy sci-fi feature "Gattaca," which had the aesthetics of a Chanel commercial and the charm of a postdated pork chop.

Asked about the festival's mission--what it is it wants to do--Handling was emphatic. "Become advocates for good cinema, create a space for cinema you don't get to see and certainly become advocates for Canadian film." To that end, Egoyan's "Sweet Hereafter" opened the festival and other Canadian movies--including the mystical Guy Maddin's fantastical confection "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs"--make up the festival's enormous Perspective Canada section, which may have to struggle to get attention at a festival so rich with names, faces and "event" movies.

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