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    A scene from Millions. in Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features
    A scene from "Millions."

    Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features

    While big-studio boutique films generated their own buzz, a number of lower-flying entries in the Toronto Film Festival pushed boundaries, possibilities and sometimes credibility.


    The independents were out in full force at the 29th Toronto International Film Festival, from micro-budgeted films looking for distribution, to promising documentaries likely to enjoy a run on television if not in theaters (or maybe both), to product from the smallish boutique divisions of major Hollywood studios. Among the last, Fox Searchlight made a strong showing with three much buzzed-about adult-oriented films — "Sideways," "Kinsey," and "I Heart Huckabees" — and one delightful surprise, a live-action family picture called "Millions."


      Festival: Toronto International Film Festival: Asia in Focus
    About one in six films at the Toronto International Film Festival came out of Asia, ranging from Hong Kong stalwarts to Korean upstarts.

      Festival: Toronto International Film Festival: European Vistas
    European directors featured in the Toronto Film Festival take on fascism in the past and vicious conflicts of the present.

    Fresh off his success last year with the sci-fi thriller "28 Days Later," director Danny Boyle demonstrates his versatility in this American/British co-production about a hyper-imaginative little boy who, following the death of his mother, has philosophical conversations with the various saints who pop around to check in on him. Eight-year-old Damian (played by newcomer Alex Etel, a thoroughly winning charmer) believes in the power of prayer and in miracles — and is absolutely convinced that a divine agency is at work when a million pounds come crashing through his playhouse by the Liverpool railroad tracks. He tries to emulate the saints by giving the money away to worthy causes, but that turns out not to be so easy. "Millions" is very funny and sweet without being cute; the fantasy elements mesh flawlessly with the "real" narrative events because we experience everything through Damian's eyes. Congratulations to screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, who's worked a tidy little miracle himself.

    Todd Solondz's latest film, "Palindromes," is also about youthful fixations, but it's 180 degrees different from "Millions" — and from just about any other movie you've ever seen. Aviva Victor is only twelve years old, but she knows what she wants in life, and that is to have a baby — now. Her parents (Ellen Barkin, Richard Masur) try their best to prevent her, so Aviva flees. That's a simple explanation of the story; what complicates matters is the casting. With each chapter in Aviva's journey, a different actor plays the runaway, and few of them resemble each other. "Palindromes" is a surreal dark comedy that sends up activists on both sides of the abortion issue and is decidedly un-PC on other topics, pedophilia and the physically handicapped included. It's outrageous, and yet by its end, quite poignant.

    Palindromes. in Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features  
    Outsiders trying to make their way back into society figured into three indie dramas. "A Good Woman" moves Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" to the 1930s, as it follows Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt), an adventuress who escapes further scandal in New York by taking up residence on the Amalfi coast. Seeking to attach herself to two wealthy young newlyweds, she suffers a crisis of conscience when she realizes the wife (Scarlett Johansson) is none other than the daughter she gave up years ago. Mike Barker directs a fine cast, which includes Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Campbell-Moore and Mark Umbers; Ben Scott is responsible for the sumptuous production design, beautifully captured by cinematographer Ben Seresin.

    "On the Outs" is a gritty urban drama that marks the auspicious feature debut of co-directors Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik, and has at its center a quietly commanding performance by Judy Marte ("Raising Victor Vargas") as one of three young New Jersey women who meet in prison. She plays a drug dealer who knows the gravity of what she's doing, but is determined to make a better life. Reminiscent of early French New Wave cinema, the movie adopts an unsentimental attitude toward its flawed protagonists, and uses the starkness of their milieu to almost poetic effect.

      On the Outs. in Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features
      "On the Outs."
    In "The Woodsman," Kevin Bacon undertakes what is arguably the most challenging role of his career, a convicted pedophile trying to start over after 12 years in jail. A romance with a fellow co-worker (Kyra Sedgwick) helps Walter transition to his new job in a lumberyard, but his desires are also stirred by a lonely preteen he spots while commuting. Several plot elements — another pedophile on the loose, a menacing detective and a jealous woman — add to the suspense, leading the audience to Walter's corner as he struggles to understand and overcome his capacity for evil. First-time director Nicole Kassell and Stephen Fechter co-wrote the script, adapted from his stage play.

    Two non-fiction films about tangled family ties were among the more intriguing Toronto entries. Eight years in the making, "Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family" documents a bold experiment, a ménage ą trois between two gay men and the woman they invite to be lover, wife, and mother of their children. Producer/director Susan Kaplan has keen storytelling instincts and three camera-friendly subjects — Sam Cagnina, Steven Margolin and Samantha Singh — who set a new standard for sophistication among Manhattanites. As much a study in psychology as it is in changing social mores, the movie is far more ambitious, subtle and engrossing than the reality-television fare to which it will inevitably be compared.

    Haskell Wexler and Mark Wexler in Tell Them Who You Are. in Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features  
    Haskell Wexler and Mark Wexler in "Tell Them Who You Are."
    There's so much going on in "Tell Them Who You Are" it's amazing it's only 95 minutes long. Like last year's "My Architect," it's a documentary undertaken by the son of a famous father, to honor and at the same time come to terms with a great artist who was often a distant parent. Mark S. Wexler trains his viewfinder on his dad, cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler, and the sparring begins right from the get-go. The elder Wexler — who in the course of his long, illustrious and sometimes rocky career rarely met a director he felt he couldn't top — needles his progeny about where to place the camera, how to frame the shot, and what the scene will be. It would be exhausting if it weren't so entertaining. A bevy of Hollywood A-listers — Michael Douglas, Julia Roberts, Jane Fonda, Billy Crystal — chime in with their reminiscences and insights, making this also a movie about moviemaking. And then there is Mark's own quest for validation; in a way this film is a continuation of his earlier small gem, "Me & My Matchmaker" — documentary as personal psychotherapy. "Tell Them Who You Are" is rich, tender and incisive.

    The best that can be said about Wim Wenders" "Land of Plenty" is that after 123 minutes it ends. Its half-baked story about a young woman (Michelle Williams) in search of her long-lost uncle (John Diehl) fails to connect observations about poverty in America, conspiracy nuts, and September 11th into a coherent whole. This is the kind of rushed production that gives digital filmmaking a bad name.

    Festival articles



    Toronto International Film Festival: Indie Features

    While big-studio boutique films generated their own buzz, a number of lower-flying entries in the Toronto Film Festival pushed boundaries, possibilities and sometimes credibility.

    DECEMBER 15, 2004

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