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eye - 09.06.01
http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_09.06.01/film/tiff.html

Best of the Fest

Our reviewers tackle over 70 films in our biggest ever Toronto International Film Festival guide

Reviews by Jason Anderson, Barrett Hooper, Kim Linekin, Adam Nayman and Catharine Tunnacliffe

HOW TO DO THE FESTIVAL

The Toronto International Film Festival has a way of making people feel as though if they didn't buy their tickets three months ago and plan to take two weeks off work, they have little hope of seeing anything. There's a grain of truth in this -- it is hard to get tickets. But with a little advance planning, it is possible.

Subject to availability, single tickets can be purchased at the Festival Box Office in the Eaton Centre for $13 ($23.55 for Galas) until the day before the screening. On the day of the screening, single tickets are available for $13.75 ($24 at Roy Thomson Hall for Galas) from the cinema box office where the movie is playing.

If a film is sold out, tickets may still be available for rush seats -- to go rush for any performance, turn up in good time (that can mean upwards of four hours for popular movies) and join the rush line, which lets people into the theatre five minutes before the start of the show.

And remember, many of the most popular festival movies are studio pictures that will soon be receiving a theatrical release -- you might find it easiest (and more satisfying) to score tickets for the really obscure fare. For more information, contact the Film Festival at 968-FILM. CT


A MA SOEUR! (FAT GIRL) ****

Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida. Written and directed by Catherine Breillat. 93 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 8, 10pm, Uptown; Sept. 9, 3:30pm, Isabel Bader Theatre.

Director Catherine Breillat follows up her semi-porn art-house flick Romance with a work just as unsettling but far more cogent and affecting. Two adolescent sisters -- the thin and comely Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and the hefty and wary Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) -- learn all about the cruelty of love and sex while on holiday with their diffident dad (Romain Goupil) and ineffectual mom (an excellent Arsinée Khanjian). Sharing a room with her sister, Anaïs is forced to witness the lengthy seduction of Elena by an older law student who convinces the girl that anal intercourse is a noble "demonstration of love." Though more humane in tone than much of Breillat's work, A Ma Soeur! still digs deeply into some ugly corners of human sexuality, with devastating results. JA

ABANDONED ***

Starring Tamás Mészáros, Szabolcs Csizmadia. Written and directed by Arpád Sopsits. 98 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 13, 6pm, Varsity; Sept. 14, noon, Cumberland.

Another entry in the international "You think your childhood was bad?" competition, this autobiographical film depicts a boys' home so grim it makes the Cider House Rules' orphanage look like summer camp. The hero is Aron, a nine-year-old Hungarian lad who pines for his blind mother after his father leaves him in the care of a sadistic headmaster. Aron finds solace in his peers, naturally, and in the teachings of a cello-playing astronomer. Peeking through these Dickensian trappings, however, are subtle characterizations and frank performances, especially from the boys. Who can resist a well-told sob story? KL

ADDRESS UNKNOWN **

Starring Yang Dong-kun, Kim Young-min. Written and directed by Kim Ki-duk. 117 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 9, 9pm, Cumberland; Sept. 11, 4:15pm, Varsity.

Kim Ki-duk, last at the festival with the disturbing thriller The Isle, returns with an attempt to examine the psychic wounds caused by U.S. military involvement in South Korea. In a Korean town near an American army base where the primary industry appears to be capturing local dogs and butchering them for meat, three taciturn teenagers -- a girl with a damaged eye, a shy young illustrator and the mixed-race son of an American soldier and a now-insane Korean woman -- suffer no end of misery. Kim is a maker of powerful images, and the first hour of Address Unknown is angry and incisive, but the director is let down by some rotten actors and his own unfortunate compulsion to maim and kill the characters in ever more lurid ways for lack of anything better to do. JA

L'ANGE DE GOUDRON (TAR ANGEL) **

Starring Zinedine Soualem, Hiam Abbass. Written and directed by Denis Chouinard. 90 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 12, 9pm, Varsity; Sept. 14, 1:30pm, Cumberland.

The titular angel is an Algerian named Ahmed (Zinedine Soualem) who eagerly waits for his family to be granted Canadian citizenship in Montreal. The devil is the Canadian government, believe it or not. In a plot so heavy-handed it has to be smothered in light humour, Ahmed's dreams are jeopardized when his son Hafid falls in with sympathetic anti-government activists. Much of the film concentrates on the puffed-up tension between Ahmed and Hafid's spiky-haired girlfriend as they try to stop Hafid from pursuing a dangerous mission. Soualem's soulful performance is the only thing that redeems this odd smear campaign on Canada's civil servants. KL

APRES LA RECONCILIATION (REACHING AN UNDERSTANDING) ***

Starring Anne-Marie Miéville, Jean-Luc Godard. Written and directed by Miéville. 74 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 10, 6:30pm, Cumberland; Sept. 12, 5pm, Uptown.

Who knew Jean-Luc Godard could act? Here he takes on the Woody Allen role of lusted-after curmudgeon while his brittle wife, Anne-Marie Miéville, sits in the writer/director's chair. Essentially a four-person play that could double as a PhD dissertation, the film deconstructs the conversations between an older couple (Miéville and Godard) and a young man and woman over the course of a day and evening. The characters spar and confess like only the self-absorbed intelligentsia can, yet the film is worth the price of admission just to see Godard cry. Annoying and affecting in equal measure. KL

AS WHITE AS IN SNOW ***

Starring Amanda Ooms, Richard Wolff. Written by Jan Troell, Jacques Werup. Written by Troell. 164 min. Nordic Visions. Sept. 9, noon, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sept. 11, 9:15am, Varsity.

The latest epic tale by 70-year-old Swedish master filmmaker Jan Troell is the real-life story of Sweden's first aviatrix, Elsa Anderrson (Amanda Ooms). With a chip on her shoulder the size of her dead mother, Elsa hurtles through the first decades of the last century, attending a ramshackle flight school and later studying art in Berlin. There are affairs with men and women, but little happiness. Troell wrote, edited, directed and shot As White as in Snow himself, and it's a typically gorgeous, stately work. Though the slow pacing and happenstance plotting may put off some viewers, it's worth the investment of time. JA

BARAN **

Starring Hossein Abedini, Zahra Bahrami. Written and directed by Majid Majidi. 94 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 7, 6:30pm, Cumberland; Sept. 8, 4pm, Uptown.

After meaty, award-winning fare like Children of Heaven and Color of Paradise, Iranian director Majid Majidi's latest is a well-crafted letdown. The story is set in a construction site not far from the Afghanistan border, where the foreman saves money by hiring Afghan workers illegally. The film rolls along happily as a workplace comedy for a while. Then the Big Message is handed down in the form of a girl who disguises herself in order to work in her father's place. An obnoxious Iranian boy discovers her secret and is Transformed by Love for Her. It's a chauvinistic twist that spoils an otherwise intelligent film. KL

BLUE SPRING **

Starring Ryuhei Matsuda. Written and directed by Toyoda Toshiaki. 83 min. Discovery. Sept. 10, 10pm, Cumberland; Sept. 12, 9am, Cumberland.

Grunge comes to Japan in this stylish look at teenage nihilism. At a boys' school, the leader of the pack is decided by who can clap the most times while perched on the dangerous side of a rooftop fence. It's a ridiculous game by North American standards, but here it takes on exaggerated significance. The sullen Kujo (Gohatto's Ryuhei Matsuda) wins the game but doesn't feel like enforcing mob rule, which arouses the ire of his temperamental best friend. It could be the stuff of Shakespeare, but first-timer Toyoda doesn't reach beyond the story's comic-book origins. Too much blood, not enough guts. KL

THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS ***

Starring Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles. Written and directed by Patrick Stettner. 84 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 7, 9:30pm, Uptown; Sept. 8, 9:15am, Varsity.

This two-hander from rookie director Patrick Stettner suggests, in equal parts, In the Company of Men and the films of David Mamet, with a little dash of Diabolique thrown in for good measure. Stockard Channing plays Julie, the newly appointed CEO of a company, who finds herself holed up at an airport bar with her moody young assistant Paula (Julia Stiles). The two become fast -- and competitive -- friends, but it's soon obvious that Paula is dangerously unbalanced. A chance encounter with one of Julie's clients at a bar prompts a shocking revelation, and the film then turns into a distaff version of Sleuth, with both women struggling to attain the upper hand in what is now a potentially damaging situation. The plotting is on the predictable side, but Stettner writes tart dialogue, and both actors are exemplary. AN

LE CAFE DE LA PLAGE (BEACH CAFE) **

Starring Jacques Nolot, Ouassini Embarek. Written by André Téchiné, Benoît Graffin, based on a work by Paul Bowles. Directed by Graffin. 85 min. Discovery. Sept. 13, 6:30pm, Cumberland; Sept. 14, 10:30am, Cumberland.

The beach café of the title is a glorified lean-to, where the young Driss meets Fouad, an enigmatic man with a hidden agenda that includes undermining Driss in odd ways and lying. However, apart from marvellous shots of the Moroccan coastline, there's not a lot going on in the film. Interesting undercurrents appear from time to time -- there are some intriguing tensions between European and African cultures, but director Benoît Graffin keeps these resolutely in the background. CT

CENTURY HOTEL **

Starring Tom McCamus, Mia Kirshner. Written and directed by David Weaver. 96 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 9, 9:15pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sept. 11, 9am, Royal Ontario Museum.

More is definitely less in this disappointing debut by Canadian director David Weaver. Half a dozen storylines, all taking place in the same hotel room over the course of the last century, compete for space. Among them are the tale of a john (Tom McCamus) and a hooker (Mia Kirshner) who meet one night every year, and that of a reclusive musician (Raine Maida) who's lured out of his hovel by a curious maid (Chantal Kreviazuk). While Century Hotel aspires to be another example of the emerging Canadian subgenre of overly schematic, over-decorated art-house fare (e.g., The Red Violin, The Five Senses), it's kneecapped by the slapdash dialogue, the unconvincing attempts to portray the different time periods and the wildly disparate abilities of the cast members. McCamus may be able to breathe life into this hokum but Maida sure can't. JA

LA CHAMBRE DES OFFICIERS (OFFICERS' WARD) **

Starring Eric Caravaca, Denis Podalydes. Written and directed by François Dupeyron, based on the novel by Marc Dugain. 135 min. Special Presentation. Sept. 12, 7pm, Elgin; Sept. 14, 7pm, Cumberland.

Adrien (Eric Caravaca) joins the French army at the start of World War I in the spirit of "It'll all be over by Christmas"; within short order, he's enjoyed a quick one-night stand with a willing woman and had half his face blown off. Most of the film, which is best described as The English Patient meets The Elephant Man, takes place in the hospital ward where he's sent to recover with the other desperate cases. Though the film does deliver its promised triumph-of-the-human-spirit message, it's not without a lot of sucking chest noises and revolting hospital scenes. CT

LA CIENAGA (THE SWAMP) ***

Starring Graciela Borges, Mercedes Morán. Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel. 103 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 7, 9:30pm, Varsity; Sept. 9, 9:30am, Isabel Bader Theatre.

This technically accomplished but slow-moving first feature from Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel is proof that a little soporific atmosphere goes a long way. The opening scenes introduce the repressed housewife Mecha (Graciela Borges), who spends her afternoons drinking alone in La Mandragora, her dilapidated country estate. She has grown weary of her indifferent family and is desperate to escape what has become a stifling existence. Visitors arrive in the form of her cousin, Tali (Mercedes Morán), and her rambunctious brood: eventually, even the expanse of La Mandragora cannot accommodate the frayed nerves and bad vibes circulating between the two clans. The hastily wrapped-up story leaves something to be desired, but the muggy cinematography by Hugo Colace brings such immediacy to the images that you may start swatting at imaginary flies. AN

COMMENT J'AI TUE MON PERE (THE WAY I KILLED MY FATHER) ***

Starring Michel Bouquet, Charles Berling. Written by Anne Fontaine, Jacques Fieschi. Directed by Fontaine. 98 min. Special Presentation. Sept. 8, 6:30pm, Uptown; Sept. 10, 1pm, Royal Ontario Museum.

If your dad was nice to you, you may not be able to relate to this film, which features the coldest father since Darth Vader sliced his son's arm off. The violence is more psychological here, and it cuts both ways. Charles Berling plays a slick gerontologist with an elegant, inquisitive wife and a father who turns up decades after choosing working as a doctor in Africa over his family. The horror unfolds as we watch how the father's mild-mannered indifference continues to destroy everyone around him. Chillingly prosaic. KL

UN CRABE DANS LA TETE ****

Starring David La Haye, Isabelle Blais. Written and directed by André Turpin. 102 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 7, 7pm, Elgin; Sept. 8, 3pm, Varsity.

Fiercely original, occasionally pitch-dark comedy-drama about a globe-trotting underwater photographer named Alex (David La Haye) enduring romantic complications during a layover in Montreal. The edgy, funny tone is set in the opening scene, where Alex emerges from a decompression chamber after suffering an accident during his most recent dive. The first thing he does when he opens his eyes is hit on the attractive nurse. We recognize the type right away: a chronic, trouble-bound charmer. Although this is his first feature, writer/director André Turpin shows a tremendous talent for characterization -- the players all exist in three dimensions and speak in a cacophony of distinct, unique voices. AN

CYBERMAN ****

Starring Steve Mann. Directed by Peter Lynch. 87 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 9, 3pm, Varsity; Sept. 12, 7pm, Varsity.

While the title sounds like a bad Saturday-morning cartoon, Cyberman is actually a fascinating and often funny documentary about a very real, albeit very strange, person. Steve Mann is a Toronto inventor, U of T professor, social activist and the world's first cyborg. Looking like a Borg from Star Trek, he is the ultimate techno-geek, sporting sunglasses equipped with cameras and a wearable computer linked to the Internet. His goal is to have people not only see his world, but live it with him. Directed by Peter Lynch, who made the terrific Project Grizzly, the film reveals Mann as not only a genius who prefers to live life through his filtered cyber-world, but also a sweetly innocent man who taught himself to swim by studying books and calculating vectors. BH

DELBARAN ***

Starring Kaeem Alizadeh, Rahmatollah Ebrahimi. Written and directed by Abolfazl Jalili. 96 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 6, 9pm, Varsity; Sept. 8, 9am, Uptown.

It helps to know that this film is about a real coffee shop near the Afghanistan border, where Iranian officials keep a close eye on smuggled workers and drugs. Apparently, director Albolfazl Jalili came across his lead character, a 14-year-old Afghan refugee named Kaim, by chance, and decided to integrate his history into the film. Though the story is sluggish and padded with redundant shots, it contains a refreshing portrait of a young man resourceful enough to find his place in this makeshift community. Far from dwelling on Kaim's tragic circumstances, Jalili looks for moments of humour and triumph. KL

ELOGE DE L'AMOUR ***

Starring Bruno Putzulu, Cécile Camp. Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard. 98 min. Masters. Sept. 11, 6pm, Uptown; Sept. 13, 11am, Varsity.

Who knows what exactly Godard is on about in this film, but his words and images don't have to add up to mesmerize you. Just so you're not completely lost, here's the Godard for Dummies version of the plot. The first half, shot in sumptuous black and white, concerns a director who's trying to make a movie about three couples of differing ages. The second half, shot on hypersaturated digital video, follows an elderly couple, heroes of the French Resistance, about whom Steven Spielberg wants to make a movie. Godard takes amusing potshots at America in between pontificating about aging and thought. Love it like you would a difficult child. KL

ENGRAM SEPALS (MELODRAMAS 1994-2000) ***

Written and directed by Lewis Klahr. 85 min. Wavelengths. Sept. 10, 8pm, Varsity; Sept. 11, 1:30pm, Varsity.

This collection of seven collage films from the renowned filmmaker and animator Lewis Klahr runs the gamut from riveting to boring, often within the same piece. Klahr's distinctive style -- two-dimensional comic-book clippings juxtaposed with shifting canvases of colour and sound -- is beautifully suited to most of the material: in the centrepiece episode, Pony Glass, he employs Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen as a sexually confused protagonist to striking effect. The assaultive, pornographic Downs Are Feminine, on the other hand, feels like a calculated bluff -- after 10 minutes or so, the images lose their taboo allure and the viewer just feels embarrassed. The languidly paced shorts in Engram Sepals are not for all tastes, but will likely appeal to fans of avant-garde filmmaking. AN

ENIGMA ***

Starring Kate Winslet, Dougray Scott. Written by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Robert Harris. Directed by Michael Apted. 118 min. Gala. Sept. 14, 6:30pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sept. 15, 9:30am, Uptown.

This wartime drama shows the flip side of the glib Hollywood action movie U-571 -- the capture of Hitler's precious encoding machine was only a first step toward cracking Germany's military codes. They were cracked by an army of experts working around the clock on primitive computers. Dougray Scott plays Tom Jericho, a mathematician recovering from a nervous breakdown who starts investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Claire, with the help of her frumpy housemate Hester (Kate Winslet). Based on Robert Harris' novel, Enigma reveals a little-known side of the British war effort and makes some interesting points about the lousy treatment women received at the time. But Michael Apted's direction is curiously flat, and though the script is by Tom Stoppard, you wouldn't know it -- the story is always moving toward a conventional action mode rather than exploring more intriguing psychological territory. CT

LE FABULEUX DESTIN D'AMELIE POULAIN (AMELIE) *****

Starring Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz. Written by Guillaume Laurant, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Directed by Jeunet. 120 min. Special Presentation. Sept. 10, 9:30pm, Elgin; Sept. 12, 3:30pm, Uptown.

Already taken to France's collective bosom, the latest by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who made Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children and Alien Resurrection with partner Marc Caro) is a ravishing romantic comedy-cum-fantasy that is quintessentially and hilariously Parisian. The charming but shy Amélie (Audrey Tautou) becomes a self-styled good Samaritan when she begins to meddle in the messy, unfulfilled lives of her neighbours and workmates. But will she find a love for herself in a young man (Mathieu Kassovitz) who collects discarded pictures from instant-photo booths? Every frame is crammed with details (many of them digitally composed), and the story and script are worthy of Jean Renoir or Jacques Demy at their most deliriously whimsical. Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain is bold, imaginative and impossible to resist. JA

FACING THE MUSIC ***

Directed by Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson. 89 min. Real to Reel. Sept. 12, 4:15pm, Varsity; Sept. 15, 4pm, Cumberland.

Facing the Music is a calm, understated documentary about acclaimed Australian composer Anne Boyd, who unwittingly became a major player in a heated administrative dispute at the University of Sydney in 1999. As the film opens, Boyd has a comfortable place among the faculty as the chair of music, but her refusal to accept cuts to the program's curriculum puts her career in jeopardy. It becomes apparent early on that the reticent, highly private Boyd is ill-suited to her role as a workplace Spartacus, but the filmmakers wisely concentrate on her passionate love for music instead. The scene where she instructs her students on the liberation inherent in E-minor speaks more loudly about the value of arts education than any shouted slogan. AN

LA FEMME QUI BOIT **

Starring Elise Guilbault, Luc Picard. Written and directed by Bernard Emond. 91 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 13, 7:15pm, Varsity; Sept. 14, 2:30pm, Cumberland.

This Montreal-based drama boasts a spectacular performance from Elise Guilbault as the titular lush, but otherwise it's a funereally paced dud. Director Bernard Emond is aiming for warts-and-all realism, but no amount of jerky, hand-held camera work can disguise a thin script. The film is a series of episodes describing the alcoholic tendencies of Guilbault's Paulette, a weary survivor driven to the drink by a hard life and a fractured marriage. There are some scattered, powerful moments -- a flashback to Paulette's affair with a prominent politician has a cruel sting -- but the largely shouted dialogue and garish period detail quickly become stifling. AN

FIASCO ***

Starring Róbert Arfinnsson, Silja Hauksdóttir. Written and directed by Ragnar Bragason. 92 min. Nordic Visions. Sept. 13, 10pm, Cumberland; Sept. 15, 9am, Varsity.

A good, mordant Icelandic comedy in the style of Aki Kaurismaki, Ragnar Bragason's Fiasco follows the misfortunes of three relatives living in the same household. Karl (Róbert Arnfinnsson) is smitten with an elderly actress who's as batty as she is alluring. Granddaughter Julia (Silja Hauksdóttir) can't choose between her two lovers or even decide whether or not she's pregnant. And middle-aged mother Steingerour (Margrét Akadóttir) has the unenviable task of having to clean up after a hellraising, hot-tubbing priest. Despite the impassive faces of Fiasco's cast and the empty, snowy streets, there's a torrent of lust and madness just below the frigid surfaces. JA

THE FRANK TRUTH ****

Written by Debbie Melnyk. Directed by Rick Caine. 85 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 10, 9pm, Royal Ontario Museum; Sept. 12, 11:15am, Cumberland.

Frank magazine gets exactly the assessment it deserves in this documentary by the media-savvy makers of Junket Whore. Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine allow the Ottawa-based satirical journal's staff, supporters and victims to all get their say -- Mike Duffy, Jeanne Beker and Mike Harris decline to comment, while Conrad Black grumbles that the last issue he saw "didn't strike me as very funny." The filmmakers illustrate how Frank plays an invaluable role in our country's stuffy, tight-assed political and media arenas. At the same time, they don't let editor/publisher Michael Bate off the hook for the mag's racist, sexist and homophobic gags, its penchant for sloppy inaccuracies and Bate's own hypocrisy. It's exciting to see Frank's low-definition satire finally given some high-definition scrutiny. JA

HELL HOUSE ****

Directed by George Ratliff. 85 min. Real to Reel. Sept. 11, 6:30pm, Cumberland; Sept. 13, 11:45am, Cumberland.

Enough with the turn-the-other-cheek crap -- the growing Hell House movement in the U.S. seeks to scare God into non-believers. Every October in Cedar Hill, Tex., the Trinity Christian School presents a Pentecostal version of a haunted house. Instead of seeing skeletons, ghouls and goblins, those who dare to enter are subjected to scenes of abortions gone wrong, drunk-driving tragedies and even date rapes at rave parties. Director George Ratliff and crew documented the making of the school's latest Hell House, and the resulting film presents a group of very sincere, very dedicated individuals who try to bring God into people's lives in a way that is controversial, often bizarre and never less than fascinating in what it says about modern conceptions of sin and salvation. JA

HONEY FOR OSHUN **

Starring Jorge Perugorría, Isabel Santos. Written by Elia Solás, Humberto Solás. Directed by Humberto Solás. 115 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 6, 6pm, Varsity; Sept. 8, 9am, Varsity .

People who cry during commercials might be moved by this sentimental tale of a Cuban American who returns to his homeland looking for his long-lost mother. There are certainly enough tears and hugs to qualify it for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Hunky Perugorría plays the prodigal Cuban who reunites with his beloved cousin (Santos) in Havana and sets off with a taxi driver (Mario Limonta) on a comedy-of-errors road trip. Their only conflicts consist of broken-down vehicles and passionate renewals of intent. If the lush Cuban vistas don't lull you to sleep, the propaganda-driven plot certainly will. KL

HOW'S YOUR NEWS? ****

Directed by Arthur Bradford. 82 min. Real to Reel. Sept. 7, 9pm, Varsity; Sept. 9, 3pm, Royal Ontario Museum.

How's Your News? is a liberating and perspective-altering documentary, executive-produced by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, about a group of developmentally disabled adults travelling cross-country from New Hampshire to L.A. Armed only with video cameras and a microphone, they confront Americana in all its incarnations, from honky-tonk bars to alligator farms, climaxing with a whacked-out visit to Venice Beach featuring street musicians, a self-styled mystic and actor Vince Van Patten. Director Arthur Bradford has edited the material to avoid condescension -- rather than adopting a tone of PC reverence, he allows the group's humour and strong personalities to come through. AN

HUSH! ***

Starring Seiichi Tanabe, Kazuya Takahashi. Written and directed by Ryosuke Hashiguchi. 135 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 9, 8:30pm, Varsity; Sept. 11, 11:30am, Uptown.

A much more sensitive take on the same premise as the Madonna bomb The Next Best Thing, Hush! is the story of Katsuhiro, a shy Tokyo engineer who considers an unhappy young woman's offer to have a child with her, despite the reservations of his gay live-in lover. Ryosuke Hashiguchi, the Japanese director of many gay-themed films, has decided not to play this potentially campy situation for laughs (though it is pretty funny when she asks to extract Katsuhiro's semen with a syringe). Instead, Ryosuke has created a wry, winning, if languidly paced, meditation on the meaning and value of family. JA

THE ICELANDIC DREAM ***

Starring Tórhallur Sverrisson, Hafdis Huld. Written and directed by Róbert I. Douglas. 92 min. Sept. 7, 6pm, Cumberland; Sept. 11, 4:30pm, Cumberland.

Though the mockumentary is a rapidly calcifying subgenre, this debut by Icelandic director Róbert I. Douglas is a fine, funny addition to the canon. An unseen crew document the life of Toti (Tórhallur Sverrisson), a gangly soccer fanatic whose schemes for overnight success are scuppered at every turn. He pursues the American Dream while embodying Icelandic arrogance and ineptitude. Toti's latest plan involves some imported and possibly illegal Bulgarian cigarettes. All signals point to further failure, yet the product takes off, which is still bad news for Toti. Douglas employs such a deadpan approach, The Icelandic Dream almost makes Best in Show look as broad as a Rob Schneider movie. JA

IGNORANT FAIRIES **

Starring Margherita Buy, Stefano Accorsi. Written by Gianni Romoli, Ferzan Ozpetek. Directed by Ozpetek. 105 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 7, 6pm, Royal Ontario Museum; Sept. 8, 1pm, Uptown.

An Italian woman discovers after her husband's death that he had a lover, so she seeks her out. Only thing is, the lover is a he. Despite the double shock, the woman finds herself drawn into his colourful world, which includes an assortment of tragicomic gay stereotypes, including a transsexual who can't go home again and an AIDS patient who still pines for the lover who abandoned him. The tone shifts abruptly from tense to celebratory to soppy. In the end, there's really not much of a story here, and the film's last, desperate twists only emphasize this. KL

IN THE BEDROOM ****

Starring Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei. Written by Robert Festinger, Todd Field, based on the short story by Andre Dubus. Directed by Field. 136 min. Special Presentation. Sept. 9, 9:30pm, Elgin; Sept. 10, 9am, Uptown.

Actor Todd Field (Eyes Wide Shut) delivers a highly promising first feature about grief and rage. Set in a Maine fishing village, this drama stars Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as parents of a college-bound boy in love with an older single mother (Marisa Tomei). Half the film patiently develops the relationships between the characters; the other half watches them unravel after a tragic death. The acting is first-rate, and the story is both suspenseful and moving. Yet Field's direction is sometimes too elliptical for its own good, gliding over events in a way that makes them more intriguing than intelligible. KL

ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS ****

Starring Anders W. Berthelsen, Lars Kaalund. Written and directed by Lone Scherfig. 118 min. Nordic Visions. Sept. 8, 6:15pm, Varsity; Sept. 10, 10am, Uptown.

One of three new Dogme films at the festival and a big prizewinner in Berlin, Danish TV veteran Lone Scherfig's typically no-frills entry is a wry, gentle comedy reminiscent of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero and Comfort & Joy. Several lonely people in a Danish town find solace by taking Italian-language night classes -- they include a grieving young priest (Anders W. Berthelsen, star of Mifune) and a pair of sisters who've only just met. Such is their need for the class that they find a way to keep it going after the teacher has a heart attack. The humour is droll but humane, and Scherfig exhibits great sympathy for each character as he or she tries to eke out a marginally brighter existence. JA

JALLA! JALLA! ***

Starring Fares Fares, Torkel Petersson. Written and directed by Josef Fares. 88 min. Nordic Visions. Sept. 12, 7:30pm, Uptown; Sept. 13, 12:15pm, Cumberland.

A major hit in Sweden, Jalla! Jalla! ("hurry up" in Arabic) is the raucous debut of young writer/director Josef Fares, who, like his character Roro (Fares Fares), emigrated as a kid to Sweden from Lebanon. Feeling the pressure to marry, Roro and Yasmin (Laleh Pourkarim), another Lebanese twentysomething, conspire to fool their families into thinking a wedding is imminent. Naturally, circumstances spin out of their control. Meanwhile, Roro's buddy and workmate Mans (Torkel Petersson) despairs over his faulty johnson (or whatever the word for it is in Swedish) after sex games with his girlfriend and a penile pump fail to get a rise out of him. Jalla! Jalla! is none too profound, but it is an engaging and energetic tale of sexual crises and cultural clashes. JA

JOY RIDE ***

Starring Leelee Sobieski, Steve Zahn. Written by Clay Tarver, J.J. Abrams. Directed by John Dahl. 98 min. Special Presentation. Sept. 9, 9:35pm, Uptown; Sept. 11, 9:30am, Cumberland.

Director John Dahl (Red Rock West) adds a much-needed dose of humour to his usual noir thriller formula for this darkly comic nod to Duel. Steve Zahn steals the film as the smartass screw-up who, along with his straight-arrow younger brother (Paul Walker), is tormented by a psychopathic trucker on his drive home from college. Zahn and Walker hit all the right notes in conveying their sibling rivalry, while Dahl smartly maintains the suspense by keeping the killer a voice on the radio until the end of the movie. Zahn will keep you laughing when Dahl doesn't have you white-knuckling the armrest. BH

KIRA'S REASON: A LOVE STORY ****

Starring Lars Mikkelsen, Stine Stengade. Written and directed by Ole Christian Madsen. 93 min. Nordic Visions. Sept. 9, 9:45pm, Varsity; Sept. 11, 9am, Uptown.

While it's not a jaw-dropper on the level of The Celebration, this latest entry into the Dogme canon is remarkable nonetheless -- a deeply felt love story between two people without the means to properly express their feelings. In what is an endlessly amazing performance, Stine Stengade plays Kira, a young mother released from a long stay at a mental institution into the care of her husband, Mads (the equally good Lars Mikkelsen). At first, Mads, a raffish charmer with a capacity for emotional cruelty, seems incapable of caring for the erratic, damaged Kira, but all is not as it seems. The cramped intimacy of the Dogme aesthetic lends an extra touch of realism to what is easily one of the most affecting films of the year. AN

KISSING JESSICA STEIN ****

Starring Jennifer Westfeldt, Heather Juergensen. Written by Westfeldt, Juergensen, based on their play. Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. 94 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 10, 7pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sept. 12, 12:45pm, Uptown.

A highly successful adaptation of Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen's Broadway play Lipschtick, this delightful romantic comedy truly breaks the mould. Jessica Stein (Westfeldt) is a straight girl working in publishing who can't find a boyfriend -- but, unlike Bridget Jones, she takes the unusual step of answering a personals ad for "women seeking women" and meets Helen (Juergensen). Unlike most romantic comedies, which become more predictable as they progress, Kissing Jessica Stein becomes more complex, shooting off in unexpected directions in the second and third acts. The tone is light, the lines are eminently quotable (such as describing the sexually reluctant Jessica as "the Jewish Sandra Dee") and, best of all, the ending isn't a cheat on the audience or the characters. A must-see for lesbians and lesbian wannabes. CT

LAN YU ****

Starring Jun Hu, Ye Liu. Written by Jimmy Ngai. Directed by Stanley Kwan. 86 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 12, 6:15pm, Cumberland; Sept. 14, 6:45pm, Varsity.

Hong Kong auteur Stanley Kwan's latest is an often exquisite gay love story that was clandestinely shot in Beijing. With its first scenes set a few months before the massacre at Tiananmen Square, Lan Yu serves as both a look at the cultural and political changes that occur in the Chinese capital in the riot's aftermath and the story of a tumultuous but tender relationship between a wealthy businessman and a student. A gay relationship has rarely been depicted with such frankness and intelligence in a Hong Kong film, and as the greater events of the times inevitably have an impact on the lovers' situation, Kwan expertly interweaves the personal and the political. JA

LANTANA ***

Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush. Written by Andrew Bovell. Directed by Ray Lawrence. 120 min. Closing Night Gala. Sept. 15, 8pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sept. 15, 8:30pm, Uptown.

A bleak rumination on marriage and trust in the guise of a murder mystery, Lantana is a lugubrious but nonetheless worthy return by Ray Lawrence, the Australian director of the mid-'80s cult classic Bliss. The story focuses on a tight circle of unhappy people in Sydney, including Anthony LaPaglia as Leon, an emotionally numb cop who's cheating on his wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), and Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush as the grief-consumed parents of a murdered girl. When one character disappears on a dark country road one night, the relationships grow even more strained. Though the film often slows to a crawl, the actors contribute fine, understated performances and Lantana's dark, cool visual composition complements the characters' emotional barrenness. JA

LAST WEDDING ****

Starring Benjamin Ratner, Frida Betrani. Written and directed by Bruce Sweeney. 100 min. Gala. Sept. 6, 8pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sept. 6, 7:15pm, Uptown; Sept. 7, 2:30pm, Varsity.

In this acerbic, nervy comedy by Vancouver director Bruce Sweeney, the wedding of Noah (Benjamin Ratner) and Zipporah (Frida Betrani) leads to trouble not only for their relationship but those of his friends Shane (Vincent Gale) and Peter (Tom Scholte). Noah's marriage sours when he realizes he "married a half-wit," and their new life together degenerates into a hilarious battle of wills. Shane grows bitter when his girlfriend Sarah (Molly Parker) becomes successful, and Peter has an affair with Laurel (waydowntown's Marya Delver), a student who solicits his opinion on Margaret Laurence's novels while giving him a handjob. Sweeney exposes a wide range of relationship foibles, worries and hang-ups with ruthless efficiency. Somehow he's created a film that's both emotionally raw and very, very funny. JA

LIFE AS A HOUSE **

Starring Kevin Kline, Kristen Scott Thomas. Written by Mark Andrus. Directed by Irwin Winkler. 123 min. Gala. Sept. 9, 6:30pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sept. 10, 9:30am, Uptown.

Let's hope the sniffling overheard from the back row during the closing scenes can be attributed to an off-season flu bug. Life as a House is tearjerker, but it's hard to imagine anyone really buying into it. Kevin Kline -- who must have been taking notes watching Kevin Spacey in American Beauty -- plays a sad-eyed divorced architect who decides to combat terminal cancer by building an oceanside dream home. Kristin Scott Thomas co-stars as his impeccably coiffed ex, while Hayden Christensen (the future Anakin Skywalker, lest we forget) does the best work in the film as his disaffected teenage son. The direction, by Irwin Winkler, is dull and efficient; the photography is television-commercial bland. AN

LILITH ON TOP **

Directed by Lynne Stopkewich. 100 min. Real to Reel. Sept. 14, 9:30pm, Elgin; Sept. 15, 10am, Uptown.

Director Lynne Stopkewich (Kissed) might have been better off making a straight concert film rather than trying to make a real documentary about Sarah McLachlan's highly successful Lilith Fair tour -- Lilith on Top is strictly a movie by fans, for fans. Stopkewich joined McLachlan on the final leg of the final year of her tour, and the film contains some enjoyable musical numbers from the Dixie Chicks, Chrissie Hynde and many more. Interspersed with the songs are interviews with fans, musicians, roadies and the occasional outside observer -- but Stopkewich's critical stance is marshmallow soft and barely allows any notes of discord to sound. The best comments come from Hynde and Sarah Bernhard, who question whether all-women concert tours represent a genuine step forward -- but they're drowned out by a high-pitched babble praising the "supportiveness" of it all. CT

LOLA ***

Starring Sabrina Grdevich, Colm Feore. Written and directed by Carl Bessai. 97 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 8, 6:30pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sept. 12, noon, Uptown.

The follow-up to his Dogme-style debut Johnny, LOLA is compelling evidence of the talents of young Vancouver director Carl Bessai. Flighty, irresponsible and deeply unhappy, Lola (Sabrina Grdevich) has no direction, as her snippy husband (Colm Feore) is all too eager to point out to her. Then she meets Sandra (Joanna Going), and after they spend a night out in various rough East Hastings settings, Lola ends up on an unexpected new path. With his taste for over-amped visuals and cinéma-vérité immediacy, Bessai makes startling use of his settings in Vancouver and the B.C. interior, and his story and characters are much more fully conceived than they were in the so-so Johnny. This is a daring and impressive second film. JA

MALUNDE ***

Starring Ian Roberts, Kagiso Mtetwa. Written and directed by Stefanie Sycholt. 119 min. Planet Africa. Sept. 12, 9pm, Cumberland; Sept. 14, 10:45pm, Cumberland.

A South African road movie with heart, Malunde pairs a glue-sniffing street kid on the run from drug dealers with a decorated Africaner ex-soldier-turned-wax-salesman haunted by his -- and his country's -- troubled past. While the father-son relationship that develops is inevitable, writer/director Stefanie Sycholt manages to blend their story with the larger issue of post-apartheid race relations without being melodramatic or preachy. And the wonderfully touching performances by Kagiso Mtetwa as the wise-beyond-his-years boy and Ian Roberts as the troubled veteran disconnected from the world make the story far more compelling than the belaboured opening moments would lead the audience to believe. BH

MARIAGES ****

Starring Marie-Eve Bertrand, Guylaine Tremblay. Written and directed by Catherine Martin. 95 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 11, 8:45pm, Varsity; Sept. 14, 3:45pm, Cumberland.

Finally, a period film that doesn't have women prattling on in petticoats. Martin's bewitching debut centres on an angry young Quebeçoise named Yvonne (newcomer Marie-Eve Bertrand), who serves as Cinderella in her elder sister's Victorian household. The exhumation of their mother's body stirs tensions that erupt when Yvonne falls in love with the man intended for her niece. Martin wisely avoids melodrama in favour of exploring the dark, restrained emotions of these women. She patiently observes their daily chores and shows Yvonne expressing her fury not through hissy fits, but in frustrated outbursts against nature. Even when the story leaps and stalls near the end, it never loses its fascination. KL

MAYA ****

Starring Nitya Shetty, Anant Nag. Written and directed by Digvijay Singh. 113 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 7, 9pm, Royal Ontario Museum; Sept. 9, 9:30am, Cumberland .

This film doesn't have a story so much as one shocking event, but the buildup to that event and its aftermath are so well explored it doesn't matter. The central characters are Sanjay and Maya, mischievous cousins who live with Sanjay's middle-class parents in rural India. Many delightful scenes depict nothing more than their daily lives and household squabbles. Then Maya gets her first period and the family prepares for her ceremonial feast. By the time the ceremony occurs, we have such a clear picture of everyone's personality that we can appreciate the full significance of their reactions to it. A deeply engaging work. KL

MONSOON WEDDING ****

Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey. Written by Sabrina Dhawan. Directed by Mira Nair. 119 min. Gala. Sept. 11, 6:30pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sept. 12, 10am, Uptown.

From the director of Salaam Bombay! and Kama Sutra comes a chaotic but joyful movie set in the rapidly Westernizing (or, rather, Americanizing) city of New Delhi. A middle-class Punjabi family starts to melt down on the eve of the eldest daughter's wedding. The bride, Aditi (Vasundhara Das), has yet to entirely break off an affair with a married man, and her father, Lalit (Naseeruddin Shah), must ask for loans from his golfing partners to stave off financial ruin from the wedding bills. More crises -- some lighthearted, some not -- await the characters, but nothing can prevent the constant outbreaks of singing and dancing. Mira Nair's distinctive, wholly engaging approach is somewhere between Dogme-style immediacy and Bollywood-calibre excess. JA

MULHOLLAND DRIVE ***

Starring Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts. Written and directed by David Lynch. 146 min. Masters. Sept. 8, 9:30pm, Elgin; Sept. 10, 3:30pm, Uptown.

After settling down and scoring a hit with the appealing but inoffensive The Straight Story, director David Lynch is back in Twin Peaks territory with Mulholland Drive, a muddled, maddeningly elliptical film noir set in Los Angeles. Lynch has never been known as a great storyteller -- his films are all about atmosphere, and, thanks in large part to Angelo Badalamenti's dark, enveloping score, the first half of Mulholland Drive fairly crackles with menace. Things get profoundly weird, however, in the home stretch, as the director returns to the identity-swapping hijinks that marred Lost Highway and the narrative completely -- and, in all likelihood, intentionally -- falls apart. For better or worse, Lynch is preaching to the converted: hardcore fans will hail it as a masterpiece, and others need not apply. AN

NO SHAME **

Starring Veronica Forqué, Daniel Jiménez Cacho. Written by Joaquín Oristrell, Dominic Harari. Directed by Oristrell. 116 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 14, 8:30pm, Cumberland; Sept. 15, 1pm, Uptown.

No Shame is a Spanish comedy about the infighting in an acting class caused by the arrival of a famous director. It's broad and inoffensive, carefully attuned to audience demographics and likely to be a hit. The young and fresh-faced cast acquit themselves well, but director Joaquín Oristrell fails to adequately grease the wheels of the soap-opera plot; most of the film just sits on the screen, and although things pick up during the students' performances of their exhaustively rehearsed scenes, it's mostly because the parroted speeches are a blessed relief from their actual dialogue. AN

NOVOCAINE ***

Starring Steve Martin, Helena Bonham Carter. Written and directed by David Atkins. 100 min. Gala. Sept. 8, 6:30pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sept. 9, 9:30am, Uptown.

Steve Martin is the straight man in a cast of loonies in this orally fixated black comedy by the writer of Arizona Dream. Frank Sangster (Martin) is a successful dentist whose flawless existence comes apart when he is seduced and scammed by a foxy junkie (Helena Bonham Carter in trashy American mode, à la Fight Club) and threatened by her hothead brother (Scott Caan). The twists in the story are perhaps not as twisted as they could be, but there are plenty of curves in Atkins' clever dialogue and direction, and Martin, Carter and Laura Dern (as Frank's hygienist fiancée) all apply themselves to their tasks with great bravado. JA

ON THEIR KNEES **

Starring Anais Granofsky, Ingrid Veninger. Written and directed by Granofsky. 85 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 11, 7:30pm, Royal Ontario Museum; Sept. 13, 11:15am, Royal Ontario Museum.

Two estranged sisters (Ingrid Veninger and Anais Granofsky, who also directs) transport the body of their beloved grandmother in an ice-cream truck from Toronto to the East Coast in this predictable road movie. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker, engage in a high-speed chase and -- of course -- iron out the wrinkles in their difficult relationship. The relentlessly quirky tone of the film fails to disguise the familiarity of the premise and, despite a few amusing episodes, the film drags. On the plus side, Granofsky has managed to assemble an impressive cast of supporting players, including such Canadian luminaries as Maury Chaykin, Julian Richings and Homicide alumnus Clark Johnson. AN

THE ORPHAN OF ANYANG ***

Starring Zhu Jie, Sun Guilin. Written and directed by Wang Chao. 84 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 6, 9:15pm, Varsity; Sept. 8, 9:30am, Isabel Bader Theatre.

Slow and thick as taffy pulling apart, this Chinese export is nonethless an engrossing tale of two misfits -- a jobless factory worker and a prostitute who promises a stipend to whomever cares for her abandoned baby. Chao's debut feature is an adaption of his own novel, and his skill at plotting shows. He uses amateur actors and almost no dialogue, yet the tender turn of events carries the story along. He also creates an interesting tension by holding the camera at a static distance from the actors while infusing every scene with oppressive urban noise. Worth the effort to watch. KL

PARIS: XY *

Starring Zeka Laplaine, Sylvia Vaudano. Written and directed by Laplaine. 80 min. Planet Africa. Sept. 10, 7:45pm, Cumberland; Sept. 11, 9am, Cumberland.

Shapeless, listless, pointless: regardless of the prefix, less is more when it comes to viewing this baffling black-and-white drama. The misanthropic clothing designer Max (played by director Zeka Laplaine) stumbles through a separation with his wife and fumes over his mistress' affair with a co-worker. For some reason, he also hates Christmas, and there's a nameless street mystic who pops up from time to time to offer him advice. The characters are all ciphers: they're so preoccupied with their carefully cultivated ennui that they forget to do anything interesting. The significance of the title is lost on me as well, but if there was truth in advertising, Paris: xy could stand to complete the sequence and add zzzzzz. AN

PINERO ***

Starring Benjamin Bratt, Mandy Patinkin. Written and directed by Leon Ichaso. 100 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 12, 9:15pm, Varsity; Sept. 14, 9:30am, Uptown.

This biopic begins with snippets from the Puerto Rican poet/playwright Miguel Piñero's childhood and ends with his New York memorial, but everything in between is a jumble. Surprisingly, this approach works, sparing us the rags-to-riches-to-junkie plot points in favour of developing a cubist portrait of the man. Benjamin Bratt gets to show off a lot in the title role, but to his credit he nails Piñero's Beat poetry and transmits startling savagery through his flashing eyes. The main drawback is that the film looks like it was shot on security cameras and switches from colour to black and white indiscriminately. And, truth be told, we've seen this story before. KL

RAIN ***

Starring Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki, Sarah Peirse. Written and directed by Christine Jeffs, based on the novel by Kirsty Gunn. 92 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 8, noon, Varsity; Sept. 9, 4:15pm, Uptown.

If you can stand one more film about a teenage girl's sexual awakening in the 1970s, consider this languorous New Zealand candidate. Featuring a perfect, moody soundtrack by Crowded House's Neil Finn, the film depicts a summer in the life of Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki), a sullen 13-year-old with a floozy mom, stoic dad and spunky kid brother. Though the story -- Mom has an affair, leading Janey to experiment with her own sexuality -- is hackneyed, the characters have a freshness and modesty that transcends their predicament. And the beachfront cinematography is stunning. KL

REVOLUTION #9 ***

Starring Michael Risley, Adrienne Shelly. Written and directed by Tim McCann. 91 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 14, 10pm, Varsity; Sept. 15, 9:30am, Varsity.

Tim McCann's Revolution #9 is a harrowing account of a psychological breakdown: in keeping with the Beatles motif, a more appropriate title might have been Helter Skelter. Shortly after announcing his engagement to his long-time girlfriend Kim (Adrienne Shelly), cubicle drone Jackson (Michael Risley) becomes inexplicably convinced that he is the subject of a far-reaching multimedia conspiracy. The title refers to the ad campaign for a popular perfume called Rev 9, which Jackson believes is the vehicle for corporation-sponsored mind control. It's kind of a backhanded compliment to say that the film is unpredictable; while the constant shifts in tone are well-suited to chronicling Jackson's deteriorating mental state, they also suggest a story being made up as it goes along. AN

SECRET BALLOT (RAYE MAKHFI) ***

Starring Nassim Abdi, Cyrus Ab. Written by Babak Karimi. Directed by Babak Payami. 123 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 11, 9:45pm, Varsity; Sept. 12, 9:30am, Uptown.

The Iranian film Secret Ballot, directed by Babak Payami, follows a disgruntled soldier and an optimistic female pollster as they cruise the desert in a jeep, hunting down potential voters. Theoretically, the opportunity exists here for some inspired spoofery, but, despite its fertile comic premise, Secret Ballot isn't all that funny. The slow, contemplative pacing -- a trademark of Iranian cinema -- is not conducive to laughter, although a few chuckles do sneak through in the first scenes. This is not to say the film is bad: it's beautifully shot and composed, and Payami is to be applauded for taking biting potshots at such volatile issues as Iran's outmoded electoral process and women's status as second-class citizens. AN

SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK ***

Starring Edward Burns, Rosario Dawson. Written and directed by Burns. 107 min. Special Presentation. Sept. 7, 6pm, Varsity; Sept. 9, 11:30am, Cumberland.

Edward Burns' fourth feature is an amiable romp through the confused love lives of six New Yorkers. Burns hunkers down after past indulgences and concentrates on what he does best -- creating witty, observant characters that good actors can sink their teeth into. Tucci has a blast playing Graham's cheating spouse, who justifies his actions by claiming a "European" outlook on marriage. Other couples seem artificially matched, like the refined Rosario Dawson (of Josie and the Pussycats) and her mangy ex, David Krumholtz, and the faux-documentary style is a bit of a cheat. But Burns gets more things right than wrong this time. KL

A SONG FOR MARTIN ****

Starring Reine Brynolfsson, Linda Källgren. Written and directed by Bille August. 118 min. Nordic Visions. Sept. 10, 9:30pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sept. 12, 3pm, Uptown.

The highly esteemed but erratic Danish director Bille August makes a return to form in this story of two attractive people in late middle age -- Martin (Sven Wollter), a famous composer, and Barbara (Viveka Seldahl), a violinist -- who meet and fall in love. Their old spouses are cast off with nary a thought and the happy twosome are off to Morocco for a honeymoon. Yet Martin's growing forgetfulness imperils their new happiness. Alzheimer's disease is the doctor's diagnosis, and Martin and Barbara struggle to finish his last opera as his personality disintegrates. A Song for Martin is often gruelling and heartbreaking to witness, but Seldahl and Wollter's sterling performances raise this far above the level of the usual maudlin disease movie. JA

THE STRUMA ****

Written and directed by Simcha Jacobovici. 90 min. Real to Reel. Sept. 12, 6:45pm, Cumberland; Sept. 14, 9:30am, Varsity.

In August 2000, a British diver named Greg Buxton set out on an expedition to find the remains of the sunken Jewish-refugee ship on which his grandparents died. The Struma had been towed out of Istanbul harbour into the Black Sea by Turkish authorities and left engineless and stranded when it was sunk by a Soviet torpedo on the morning of February 24, 1942 -- all but one of the 779 passengers died. That survivor and other people whose lives were touched by the tragedy speak their piece in this excellent doc, but even more compelling is how the Turkish government reacts to Buxton's expedition. Simcha Jacobovici's film proves that the sinking of the Struma is not some distant event, but a crime with contemporary ramifications. JA

SUDDENLY NAKED ***

Starring Wendy Crewson, Peter Coyote. Written by Elyse Friedman. Directed by Anne Wheeler. 105 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 8, 9:30pm, Cumberland; Sept. 13, 4:30pm, Cumberland.

The latest from one of Canada's most prolific directors, Anne Wheeler, Suddenly Naked is a May-December romantic comedy about a best-selling author with writer's block who falls in love with a 20-year-old busker-turned-novelist with a promising future. The film is charming, witty and often quite biting in its humour, as Wendy Crewson's acid-tongued celeb author finally meets her match in a smartass slacker. She tries to hide their relationship from the public, while dealing with a television crew that's profiling her and an ex-boyfriend-turned-director who is turning one of her books into a movie. BH

TAPE ***

Starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard. Written by Stephan Belber. Directed by Richard Linklater. 86 min. Special Presentation. Sept. 8, 9:30pm, Uptown; Sept. 10, 3:45pm, Varsity.

Though the buzz is louder on Waking Life, Richard Linklater's live-action film in the fest is a decent piece of work, even if it doesn't transcend its self-imposed limitations. Shot in one room on DV, the action starts with Vince (Ethan Hawke) drinking and drugging in a Michigan motel. His filmmaker buddy John (Robert Sean Leonard) shows up and they begin a round of sub-Sam Shepard verbal sparring about a terrible incident in their past. Eventually, their old friend Amy (Uma Thurman) joins the fun. Tape is essentially a one-set, one-act play with Linklater's camera swivelling around to catch all the insults. Cabin fever inevitably sets in when the two guys talk themselves into a corner, but the story (and the actors) takes some unexpected turns with the arrival of Amy. JA

UNFINISHED SONG *

Starring Ali-Reza Anoushfar, Ghogha Bayat. Written by Kambozia Partovi. Directed by Maziar Miri. 94 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 7, 9pm, Cumberland; Sept. 9, 9:45am, Uptown.

A young researcher from Tehran travels to the hinterlands to record folk songs that are in danger of extinction due to an Iranian religious ban on women's singing. This scenario would make an interesting backdrop to a personal story about the researcher, but, alas, it's the whole film. See researcher try to get men to sing lullabies; see men scoff at researcher. Repeat with minor variations for two hours. Finally the hunt is on for the Holy Grail of folk singers, a woman named Hayran who's been jailed for "gleemanship," but this plot line comes too late and preaches too openly. For diehard fans of Iranian folk music only. KL

THE UNIVERSAL CLOCK: THE RESISTANCE OF PETER WATKINS ***

Written and directed by Geoff Bowie. 77 min. Real to Reel. Sept. 7, 9:15pm, Cumberland; Sept. 15, 6:30pm, Royal Ontario Museum.

Peter Watkins is a British documentary filmmaker who's never chosen the easy route. Director Geoff Bowie depicts the making of Watkins' latest project, a six-hour film about the Paris Commune of 1871, when working-class activists seized control of the city. Appropriately enough, Watkins' Commune (Paris 1871) -- also screening at the festival -- is made in a collaborative and collectivist fashion with mostly non-professional actors who speak to Bowie about the continuing relevance of the ideas of the Communards. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the film is devoted to a repetitive harangue on the evils of modern television and other forms of media that are designed to engulf rather than engage viewers. While Watkins' project deserves more screen time than it gets from Bowie, The Universal Clock is still a provocative and intelligent work. JA

WAKING LIFE *****

Starring Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. 97 min. Special Presentation. Sept. 11, 9:45pm, Elgin; Sept. 13, 5pm, Uptown.

One viewing isn't enough to absorb Linklater's ingenious keyhole philosophizing. His story follows a young man (Slackers' Wiley Wiggins) as he encounters various people talking to him or to each other about dreams, consciousness and the meaning of life. They occasionally mention a particular philosopher, but mostly they discuss ideas with a passion that's infectious. The narrative behind these random encounters emerges halfway through and adds another dimension to the experience. Much will be made about the revolutionary way actors are transformed into animation, but it's just a nifty embellishment on an already revolutionary film. A must-see for the intellectually starved. KL

WATERBOYS ***

Starring Satoshi Tsumabuki, Hiroshi Tamaki. Written and directed by Shinobu Yaguchi. 90 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 7, 9:45pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sept. 8, 12:30pm, Uptown.

This boisterous Japanese comedy will likely be advertised as an aquatic version of The Full Monty, and, as capsule summaries go, that's pretty good. These kinds of plots are by now completely ritualized: five adorable and well-meaning misfits at a high school try to organize a synchronized swimming team, but their early efforts at a routine end in disaster. They persevere, eventually get it right and earn the respect of their peers. What separates Waterboys from so many other quirky comedies is the gonzo sureness of the timing: even when the jokes are tired, director Shinobu Yaguchi spins it so that it gets a laugh. The film is also endlessly sweet and tolerant toward its characters, all of whom get what is rightfully coming to them in the end. AN

WESTRAY ***

Narrated by Michael Jones, Katie Malloch. Directed by Paul Cowan. 80 min. Perspective Canada. Sept. 14, 9:15pm, Varsity; Sept. 15, 1pm, Cumberland.

The Westray mining tragedy of 1992, which killed 26 men and sparked nearly a decade of litigation, is placed under the microscope in this fascinating but uneven documentary from Academy Award-nominated director Paul Cowan. Cowan's style, which blends first-person interviews with highly stylized re-enactments, is sometimes too distracting. His decision to have two narrators is intriguing, but their call-and-answer rhythms feel wrong for the material, and there are some cringe-inducing forays into pseudo-Beat poetry. Still, the power of the subject matter is undeniable, and there is some amazing footage of the post-explosion inquest, in which the buck is callously passed between every level of the mine's management team. AN

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (AND YOUR MOTHER TOO) ***

Starring Diego Luna, Maribel Verdú. Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. 101 min. Contemporary World Cinema. Sept. 11, 6pm, Varsity; Sept. 13, 3:15pm, Uptown.

The renaissance of Mexican cinema continues with this smart, sultry new movie. Writer/director Alfonso Cuarón left Mexico for Hollywood to make movies like Great Expectations, but returned home to make this story of two drugged-up, horny teenage boys who take to the road with an older woman after she leaves her unfaithful husband and comes looking for some fun. Coming across like a feel-good version of Kids, Y Tu Mamá También has all the energy, if not all the brains, of Amores Perros -- the film's attempts at social and political satire are appreciated but somewhat muddled. On the other hand, Cuarón foregoes more scenes of bloody dogfights in favour of lots of hot sex. No complaints here. JA


MIDNIGHT MADNESS

With all the nose-breaking action, balletic gunplay and incendiary rock 'n' roll mayhem on offer, the festival's annual late-night program of extreme cinema could be the strongest in years. Besides the ones reviewed below, there's Dogtown and Z-Boys, a documentary on skateboarding narrated by Sean Penn; Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus, described as a slice of "freefall ultra-violence non-stop entertainment action"; and Clip Cult, a compilation of stunning music videos, including Chris Cunningham's terrifying clip for the Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy."

But the movie creating the most heat is Ichi the Killer, a live-action rendering of Hideo Yamamoto's ultra-ultra-violent manga serial by Japan's most sadistic auteur, Takashi Miike (Audition, Dead or Alive). Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes says that it's rife with "sickening, nightmare images" and it's almost certainly the most violent film to be shown at the festival.

Can you take it? If you can't, there's plenty more madness to choose from.

* THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT **** (dir. Cory McAbee, 93 min. Sept. 12, midnight, Uptown; Sept. 14, 12:30pm, Varsity) A lost Buck Rogers episode shot by Jim Jarmusch? An avant-rock musical staged on the set of a Poverty Row noir? Whatever the hell this is, Cory McAbee's debut film (with songs by his band the Billy Nayer Show) is an utterly unique experience and possibly the most delightfully idiosyncratic science-fiction movie since John Carpenter's Dark Star.

American animator Bill Plympton's Eat (****) screens with The American Astronaut. An evening out at a French restaurant is transformed into a nightmare of sexy noodle ladies and projectile vomiting.

* BANG RAJAN THE LEGEND OF THE VILLAGE WARRIORS *** (dir. Thanit Jitnukul, 119 min. Sept. 13, midnight, Uptown; Sept. 15, noon, Cumberland) A modern Seven Samurai with bloodier swordplay, Bang Rajan is the true story of a Siamese village that is vigorously defended from Burmese invaders in the 18th century. And if you don't get your fill from the extraordinary battle scenes, there's a drunken fighter, too!

* LE PACTE DES LOUPS (THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF) *** (dir. Christophe Gans, 142 min. Sept. 11, 11:30pm, Uptown; Sept. 14, noon, Varsity) As the world's first attempt to combine a French costume drama, a gothic horror story and a post-Matrix action movie, this is bound to get a little ungainly at times. Nevertheless, this epic tale about a handsome libertine and his Iroquois Mohawk warrior friend investigating a mysterious beast's reign of terror in pre-revolutionary France is an amazing achievement with thrills a-plenty.

* THE BUNKER *** (dir. Rob Green, 92 min. Sept. 14, 3pm, Cumberland; Sept. 15, midnight, Uptown) A desperate group of Nazi soldiers (played by some familiar Brit actors) is driven into the creepy tunnels underneath a deserted bunker -- even though, as the old geezer warns them, "the place is evil!" Rob Green's debut is a nifty thriller that captures the essence of a '50s horror comic without resorting to Tales From the Crypt-style corniness.

* ELECTRIC DRAGON 80,000 V **** (dir. Sogo Ishii, 55 min. Sept. 10, midnight, Uptown; Sept. 12, 11:30am, Royal Ontario Museum) To the hyper-accelerated sounds of Japanese noise band Mach 1.67, two electric warriors named Dragon Eye Morrison and Thunderbolt Buddha square off in Tokyo. The last 15 minutes of this Tetsuo-like piece of black-and-white art damage will not just fry your brain, but fricassee it and serve it to your folks for Thanksgiving dinner. JA


PERSPECTIVE CANADA SHORTS

For most filmmakers, making a short film is the first step in their career. But this year Perspective Canada boasts shorts from some more established filmmakers, such as Jeremy Podeswa (The Five Senses) and Philippe Falardeau, who scored a hit at last year's fest with La moitié gauche du frigo.

PROGRAM 1

Sept. 8, 6pm, Royal Ontario Museum; Sept. 9, 8pm, Varsity.

STRANGE INVADERS ***

Directed by Cordell Barker, Strange Invaders features a demonic extraterrestrial tot who terrorizes his endearingly lumpy Earth parents: think Rosemary's Baby From Outer Space.

JEAN LALIBERTE: A MAN, HIS VISION AND A WHOLE LOT OF CONCRETE ****

Directed by Philippe Falardeau (La moitié gauche du frigo), this is a hilarious, cutthroat spoof on corporate greed in which an executive attempts to turn a provincial reserve into a parking lot. AN

PROGRAM 2

Sept. 9, 6pm, Royal Ontario Museum; Sept. 10, 10:25am, Varsity.

SILENT SONG ***

Filmmaker Elida Schogt has created a succinct but wise rumination on the nature of captured images and memory by presenting found footage of a boy playing an accordion in a WWII concentration camp.

TOUCH ****

Brendan Fletcher is extraordinary in this new film by Jeremy Podeswa, adapted from a story by Patrick Roscoe. It's a Jean Genet-like tale of torment and desire about an abused boy who understands love only as violence. Raw, beautiful and haunting, it may be Podeswa's best work.

THE JUDGMENT ****

Based on a story by Kafka, Serge Marcotte's highly stylish mini-noir is something like The Maltese Falcon reworked by Guy Maddin.

FILM (dzama) ***

The latest by Winnipeg surrealist deco dawson has the weathered look of an ancient Soviet silent film. The story has something to do with an artist forced to confront his own creations. At one point, a bear kisses a naked lady, which is a good thing.

SIGHT UNDER CONSTRUCTION ****

This gorgeous abstract piece by John Kneller is an optically printed, handmade film full of layered images. Natural scenes and garish commercial advertising collide and intermingle in an endless number of permutations. JA

PROGRAM 3

Sept. 12, 7pm, Royal Ontario Museum; Sept. 14, 1:15pm, Cumberland.

IN MEMORIAM ****

Vancouverite Aubrey Nealon's droll, macabre comedy about a young accountant forced to spend $100,000 on a gravesite plays out like a lost Edgar Allan Poe tale, except with fewer ravens and more laughs.

A FRESH START **

Two boys suffer silently as their parents fight over an impending move in this film by Jason Buxton. The dialogue is clumsy and the frustrating lack of resolution screams, "Fund my feature!"

INSEPARABLES ***

A man can't figure out why his wife has left him, but it's clear enough to the audience -- he's an insufferable bore. However, Normand Bergeron's adaptation of a story by Alberto Moravia is too much fun to be dull.

LOLLIPOPS ****

In this witty debut by UBC grad Graham Tallman, a very edgy dad makes a desperate bid for his young daughter's loyalty before his estranged wife comes to pick her up. What ensues is appropriately sweet and sticky.

THE TOPIC OF CANCER ***

Toronto playwright Guillermo Verdecchia stars in Ramiro Puerta's comic portrait of a man who attempts to have a laugh at the expense of the cancer in his colon. Some jokes don't land nearly as well as others, but it's charming enough. JA

PROGRAM 4

Sept. 13, 9pm, Royal Ontario Museum; Sept. 15, 9:15am, Cumberland.

1:1 ***

Directed by Richard Reeves, 1:1 is two and a half minutes of beautiful scratch animation, in which the sound and images are carved directly on the film stock.

AME NOIR ****

Breathtaking, paint-under-glass animation is on display in Martine Chartrand's rousing celebration of African culture that brilliantly delineates several hundred years' worth of history into a swirling, pastel maelstrom.

THREE SISTERS ON MOON LAKE ****

A grade-school version of Heavenly Creatures, Three Sisters has catch-in-the-throat beautiful cinematography and an ending that really gets under your skin.

ROMAIN ET JULIETTE **

This short charts the subtle disintegration of a long-standing marriage, but despite some good performances, the elements of the drama are too familiar. Simply put, it's a long half-hour. AN

PROGRAM 5

Sept. 14, 9pm, Cumberland; Sept. 15, 3pm, Royal Ontario Museum.

CHARLIE NOIR ***

A send-up of hard-boiled detective stories, Charlie Noir contains great lines like "A dame like that could suck the paint off a cigar-store Indian." Not much substance, but a great twist at the end.

REMEMBRANCE ***

A rich-looking period piece set in WWII about a man with a prodigious memory. Stephanie Morganstern, who also directs, gives an enchanting performance.

AFTER **

Director Byron Lamarque shoots beautifully, but After is a pretentious and forgettable short about the aftermath of a traffic accident.

INSTANT SOUP **

A woman slyly initiates a date with her next-door neighbour by having him cook dinner for her. Bridget Hill's 20-minute romance feels like the pilot of a soon-to-be-cancelled sitcom.

LIP SERVICE -- A MYSTERY **

A disappointment from festival veteran Ann Marie Fleming, Lip Service was shot on video and transformed into animation. The look is wonderful, but the quirky plot -- about a detective with no upper lip -- tries too hard. At 45 minutes, it's also way too long.

CT