Watching Books Become Movies

Cannes has beaches, Venice has gondolas, New York has bagels. But at the 24th Toronto International Film Festival, it was obvious that this city has everything. With more movies, more parties and more stars than any other film festival in the world, it’s easy to see why the town everyone calls “New York With Windex” is just about perfect.

The Toronto bash is the best-organized event I’ve ever attended; it’s the most accessible to home, the devalued Canadian currency gives visitors good bargains, the staff is courteous and friendly, everyone speaks English, and with 319 films there are more movies than anyone can possibly see in nine days. No paparazzi, no pushing and shoving, no scandals, no rampant egos, no price-gouging greed, no moguls munching smelly cigars while knowing the price of all things and the value of nothing at all. Just movies. The projectors start running at 9 A.M., with world premieres from Russia, Brazil, Korea, China and even Jamaica, and end with “midnight madness,” featuring everything from porno flicks to a brand-new Japanese Gamera redux.

If Cannes is a frenzied supermarket, Toronto is more like an endlessly tempting buffet, offering free samples to all. This year, 250,000 tickets were issued to 5,000 accredited people, including 750 members of the press–and that doesn’t account for the public that used to clamor for tickets on a first-come, first-serve basis. This year the crushing demand for tickets was determined by lottery. Clearly, Toronto has exploded.

Some festivals have a focus (film writing, independents, marketing, movie stars, the New Asian cinema), but in Toronto, the only unifying theme is “Let’s all get together and see some movies.” It’s a free-for-all that seems to be a magnet for stars. I spotted Robin Williams, Alec Baldwin, Elton John, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, singers Harry Connick Jr., Jewel and Céline Dion, Kim Basinger, Claudia Schiffer, Denzel Washington and Ed Harris.

Bruce Willis took over Planet Hollywood for a party of his own. Annette Bening missed her press conference after husband Warren Beatty announced she was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child and unable to fly. “Don’t look at me, I had nothing to do with it,” said Kevin Spacey, her American Beauty co-star, who had such a blast he returned three days later just to join the throng as a member of the audience.

Mr. Williams’ new film, a dismal mixture of Holocaust depression and self-conscious Borscht Belt humor called Jakob the Liar , was so poorly received that he declared he is taking a year’s hiatus from films and returning to stand-up comedy. Nick Nolte, in a flowing kimono, lived up to his reputation as an aging stud. Listed as one of the worst-dressed men in the world in People magazine, he came out of his corner swinging. “I worked hard for that honor. I mean, People magazine has such high taste. I selected my own wardrobe for Toronto. Men’s clothing is not only boring and colorless, it also restricts the private parts. Anything that lowers the sperm count is bad fashion.”

Now if only we could get bad Nick Nolte movies off the screen. He was in Toronto with two stinkers: a rotten Alan Rudolph adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and a yawning bore called Simpatico, based on a turgid Sam Shepard play of no consequence. Directed by newcomer Matthew Warchus, Simpatico is about two middle-aged con men (Mr. Nolte and Mr. Bridges) who are haunted by a decades-old racetrack scam involving a fixed race, pornographic pictures, the blackmailing of a racing commission official (Albert Finney) and a series of double-crosses that include Bridges’ alcoholic wife (Sharon Stone, who ends the film by shooting a horse through the head in a heap of blood and bad acting). Ms. Stone, riding the crest of a new career after The Muse , did not join her colleagues in Toronto for this fiasco.

Sigourney Weaver, who fared much better in her new film, A Map of the World , took up the slack. Glamorous and bright, she said she’s finished battling alien spiders. In her latest she plays a Wisconsin farm wife, mother and school nurse who is wrongfully accused of child abuse and sent to prison. For the role she actually spent some time behind bars. “I went through the whole booking process–fingerprinting, mug shots, everything,” she said. “It was more dehumanizing than Alien . I think I’m ready for a drawing room comedy.”

Every day brought a planeload of new arrivals, every night launched another drinkathon of vodka martinis stirred with raspberries (this year’s official Toronto cocktail). For the opening night gala, the producers of Canadian director Atom ( The Sweet Hereafter ) Egoyan’s new film, Felicia’s Journey, staged a carnival for 4,000 guests on the playing field of the SkyDome, with games, circus clowns, fortune tellers, jugglers, balloons, a Ferris wheel and 196 gallons of l00-proof vodka.

The party was more fun than the movie, a dark and brooding tale of a pregnant Irish girl who travels to a bleak British mining town searching for the soldier who deserted her, and the eccentric chef (Bob Hoskins, endearingly sinister) who befriends her. Little does she know that the kindly, grandfatherly gourmand is really a psycho who has buried a series of troubled young nymphets in his rose garden while preparing lavish feasts from the recipes his dead mother kept on videotape. The film’s creepy style is punctured by syrupy violins, and the pacing–so typical of the overrated director–is paralyzingly slow. The Canadians know how to stage film festivals, but they still don’t know how to make films. Felicia’s Journey , which will open soon in the U.S., is Julia Childs meets Norman Bates.

Armed with the festivalgoer’s essential survival kit (aspirin, Kleenex, eyedrops, notebooks, gumdrops and Preparation H), I logged about five films a day, scarfing down tacos between screenings. In a small cinema tucked away between Cartier and the Christian Science Reading Room, I passed a riot protesting something intriguingly called Barenaked in America , which turned out to be a documentary about a rock band, but opted instead for the new Woody Allen film. Good thing, too, because Sweet and Lowdown is a joyous surprise–a splendid, endearing and brilliantly conceived confection that eschews the recent sourness of Woody’s last two films, Celebrity and Deconstructing Harry , and restores his mantle of comic genius.

Sean Penn plays Emmett Ray, an obnoxious, egotistical jazz guitarist from the Depression era with a legendary status among

jazz historians and music scholars who reconstruct his brief career in a series of marvelous anecdotes in an attempt to profile the elusive musician for future archivists. A pimp and a thief whose favorite pastime is shooting rats in garbage dumps, Ray strikes up an unlikely romance with Hattie (delicious British actress Samantha Morton), a mute girl with a ravenous appetite, then he marries a poisonous debutante (Uma Thurman, looking like Eve Arden playing Auntie Mame) with a penchant for gangsters. Mr. Penn is absolutely first-rate as the flamboyant, pint-size, hard-drinking, irresponsible jerk-genius who worships Django Reinhardt. With his pencil mustache and tousled, floppy hair, he looks like Felix Bressart and all those other immigrant comics who played violinists and head waiters in the l940′s. Bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia for the music and period, Sweet and Lowdown looks ravishing, thanks to Woody’s new Chinese cinematographer Zhao ( Raise the Red Lantern ) Fei.

Another triumph was Anywhere but Here , a penetrating study of an unhappy teenager and her frustratingly unconventional mother who travel from Wisconsin to Beverly Hills in search of a new life. In a movie made up of moments that are precious, pure and truthful, Susan Sarandon is positively staggering as the irritatingly cheerful, bawdily dressed woman who can’t relinquish the role of mother. And as wooden as she was in the dismal Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace fiasco, Natalie Portman is piercingly honest and touching as the child on the verge of adulthood who no longer wants the role of daughter.

Once in a blue moon an actress will travel to the very center of her inner self for a part and come back with something unique and terrifyingly real. This is certainly true of Ms. Sarandon in Anywhere but Here . She moves through the film with a blinding force

of energy, and finesses everything with a galvanizing strength. She is grounded and tensile and alive; it’s a performance worthy of more praise than space allows me here. Sensitively and movingly directed by Wayne Wang, Anywhere but Here is a profoundly balanced and morally uplifting work for which I predict great things, including many nominations when Oscar season rolls around in the year 2000.

I was less impressed by Ang Lee’s ponderous and lengthy Ride With the Devil , a pointless epic about the Civil War (now there’s a hot topic) that saw many walkouts. But I can recommend Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules without reservation. Skillfully adapted by John Irving from his long-winded novel, it’s a well-crafted, slightly old-fashioned (in the best sense) film featuring two terrific performances: Michael Caine in fine form as Larch, the compassionate, ether-addicted doctor in a bleak orphanage in Maine who performs illegal abortions; and Tobey ( The Ice Storm ) Maguire as Homer, the orphan nobody wants to adopt whom Larch raises from infancy and teaches life’s most harrowing lessons.

Jane Alexander, Charlize Theron, Kate Nelligan, Paul Rudd, Kathy Baker and Delroy Lindo also make finely tuned contributions to The Cider House Rules , a rich film of low-key character studies centering on the central theme of a boy with a unique ability to touch the lives of others without ever knowing any love of his own. From the cheerless, Dickensian foundling home to the apple orchard where Homer applies the rules of life among the disenfranchised crop pickers in the cider house, this rapturous film captures New England’s breathtaking autumnal splendor with sweetness and accuracy.

Another big, expensive premiere was Snow Falling on Cedars , an elaborate and magnificently photographed (if somewhat self-inflated) movie version of David Guterson’s popular best seller about the internecine conflicts between white and Japanese neighbors that resurface in a murder trial nine years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Ethan Hawke, who raised more than a bit of ire in Toronto by knocking down pedestrians while Rollerblading from one cinema to the next, plays a disillusioned journalist who lost a limb to the Japanese in World War II and now finds himself covering the trial in which the Japanese girlfriend who jilted him is now married to the defendant. A complicated story is made even more confusing by jarring internal conflicts, hammering anvil choruses and close-ups of dead fish, intercut with an odd Japanese marriage ceremony in a concentration camp punctuated by a swing band vocalist singing “Moon Over Burma.”

Director Scott Hicks’ first film since the acclaimed Shine is an ambitious undertaking, played out against a mordant landscape of ice and rain on an island in the snowy Pacific Northwest where the sun rarely shines. There are first-rate performances by Max Von Sydow, Sam Shepard and Youki Kudoh (star of The Picture Bride ), but Snow Falling on Cedars is a daunting film to sit through–more a compilation of impressions, images and fragmented memories connecting past and present than a viewer-friendly entertainment.

Sandwiched somewhere between The Taste of Sunshine , an exhausting three-hour, multigenerational saga by Hungarian auteurist István Szabó about the lives of a Jewish brewing family in Hungary in which Ralph Fiennes plays three roles, replete with full-frontal nudity (conclusion: he’s no babe magnet), and The Wisdom of Crocodiles , a lurid vampire melodrama directed by Hong Kong’s Po Chih Leong with Jude Law as a romantic bloodsucker who seals his doom when he falls in love with a pretty structural engineer in present-day London, I found time to take in a nauseating (but astoundingly well-researched) documentary about John C. Holmes, better known as “Johnny Wadd,” the porn star famous for his 13-inch appendage.

Johnny pimped his own 15-year-old mistress, worked as an informant for the L.A. Police Department, and ended up a suspect in a gangland slaughter that claimed the lives of four people before he died of AIDS in l988. (He was the basis for Mark Wahlberg’s character in Boogie Nights .) I saw this little jewel at 9 A.M. in an art house where the day before they were showing Tales of Hoffman. It’s dirty work, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Heading out of town on the final day, a horde of fresh rabble was lining up for something called Tops & Bottoms , a documentary about the history of sadomasochism since the Middle Ages, and the party after–a bacchanal promising “three floors of fantastic fest-ishism! Cabaret Girls! Slave Boys! Free Spankings!” On a street corner one block away, the marquee of the Anglican Church offered a sermon called, ironically, “Free From Bondage!”

In Toronto, there really is something for everybody.