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A Tourist and Film Fan Finds 'People's Fest' Is Aptly Named


TORONTO — Fresh off the plane, we felt as hapless and frazzled as Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis in "The Out-of-Towners." A mad taxi dash from the airport Friday evening got us to the Toronto International Film Festival's main box office at the Eaton Centre mall at 6:45, 15 minutes before closing, but when we picked up our ticket package we got a shock: Our "Globetrotter" screening series started that night at 8:30, not the next day, as we had been told.

After figuring out north from south, we heaved our baggage onto the subway at the adjoining station and headed downtown to King Street to check into our hotel, then caught a train back uptown to Bloor Street, grabbing Thai noodles at Green Mango and aspirin at the corner drug store just in time to make the show.

Make no mistake: This is adventure travel, but movie buffs will quickly find that when the lights go down, it's worth the headache. As first-time visitors to any major film festival--let alone this 10-day, 265-feature extravaganza--and as newcomers to the city, we're seeing and learning more than we could have imagined for a vacation.

Film festivals have sprouted up seemingly everywhere in recent years, but Toronto's eclectic program shows in its 27th year why "the people's festival" is a favorite among industry types and fans.

Our series started with "Secretary," a subversively wicked romantic comedy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader as a workplace couple in an S&M relationship. Although the film will be too self-consciously weird for many tastes, Gyllenhaal is enchanting as a submissive head case who blossoms under Spader's twitchy tutelage.

Filmmakers, of course, add to the festival experience when they show up to chat with members of the audience, and "Secretary" director Steven Shainberg's quirky wit didn't disappoint the sell-out crowd. "I've been waiting all my life to be called 'shockingly perverse,' " he said after a festival honcho introduced the picture, Shainberg's second feature.

In a post-screening question-and-answer session, a college student reviewing the film for her school paper asked Shainberg for a "hook." "How about 'Spanking Director Makes Masterpiece,' " Shainberg suggested.

Next came "Champion," a South Korean biopic about boxer Kim Deuk-gu, who suffered a fatal blow in a world title bout against American Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. Director Kwak Kyung-taek's movie is unabashedly sentimental, but it gave North Americans who remember the tragedy a chance to view it from another perspective. This also was a chance to see a movie that may receive scant exposure in the States.

"Hard Goodbyes: My Father" focuses on the loss of a different sort of hero. In 1969 Athens, a traveling salesman promises his 10-year-old son that he will return home in time for them to watch Neil Armstrong's lunar walk together, but it was a vow he was unable to keep. This tender but slow-paced debut from director Penny Panayotopoulou is another movie that seems unlikely to reach our megaplexes.

The tone shifted with "The Nugget," a blue-collar comedy in the tradition of "The Full Monty" and "Waking Ned Devine." Three lazy Aussie blokes stumble on a mother lode of gold while on a weekend beer-drinking expedition in the hills, then mishandle it in every way. Writer-director Bill Bennett said he had the spring 2000 tech stock crash and its sudden evaporation of paper wealth in mind when he conceived of the film.

Bennett and producer Jennifer Cluff were among many filmmakers who addressed the Sept. 11 attacks, which interrupted the festival last year and tempered the usual celebratory mood this year. Production of "The Nugget" was halted briefly by the attacks, but what kept cast and crew going was the sense that "we were putting love and light out into the world," Cluff said.

Beginners' Luck

To supplement our series, we made a bleary-eyed return to the box office early Saturday in search of tickets to individual films. More than half the screenings listed on the poster-sized schedules were already crossed out in red as the third day began, meaning only those willing to wait in "rush" lines had a prayer of a chance, but we seemed to be having beginners' luck with the ones we picked from the leftovers.

A local in line mentioned he was catching the world premiere that night of the micro-budgeted American film "Never Get Outta the Boat." That show was sold out, but every movie screens twice, so we nabbed Sunday-morning seats on the theory that you can sleep when you're dead.

Director Paul Quinn was impressed to see a packed house. "Look at you. It's 9 a.m. and here you are," he said by way of introduction. The gritty movie, written by co-star Nick Gillie and named for a line in "Apocalypse Now," turned out to be a captivating and funny tale of early sobriety in a halfway house full of drug addicts.

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