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'Mixing Nia,' 'Little Voice' bring humanity to Toronto

TORONTO -- Reeling after a week of too many films built on too much mindless brutality, I found "Little Voice" and "Mixing Nia" to be soothing reassurances that there were still filmmakers with heart and humor. The general view at this year's Toronto Film Festival is that a lot of ambitious new flickers are engaged in a game of one-upmanship in violence and may have outstripped even the audience appetite for mayhem.

Certainly the heroine of "Mixing Nia" is a refreshing change from some of the twisted nutcases in many other films. She has ideas, a personality, values and other qualities unknown to the New Geek Cinema.

Played by Karyn Parsons (of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air"), she's the daughter of a white father and a black mother, who works in an ad agency until she refuses to work on an account pitching cheap beer to young blacks. She thinks maybe she'll write a novel. But that goes badly. Meanwhile her romantic life involves shaky relationships with two men: the teacher of her African-American writing workshop (Isaiah Washington) and her former partner at the ad agency (Eric Thal).

The debut movie was written and directed by Alison Swan, a New York University film school graduate from Bermuda, and she's too smart to present easy answers. Instead, as racial and ideological questions spill over into everyday decisions, she depends on Nia's common sense to muddle through.

Parsons is right for the title role, because she keeps the material in perspective with a saving sense of humor; she has good timing in small, subtle double takes as she reacts to what people think she wants to hear. Swan said in a Q&A afterward that she wanted to let all the characters have their say, and they have it, although Nia doesn't get many answers that way. The movie's buried insight, I think, is that valid human relationships begin with feeling and honesty, not abstractions.

"Little Voice" is one of the great audience favorites here this year. It stars Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine in a delightful British comedy in which Caine is a desperate show-biz promoter and Horrocks is a goofy girl who never leaves her room and hardly ever speaks - but can do uncanny imitations of the records she listens to incessantly, by Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland.

Horrocks (who played Bubbles on TV's "Absolutely Fabulous") did all of her own singing, which is amazing; she's so good the audience assumes she's miming.

"Antz," the big new DreamWorks animated comedy, was featured at the closing-night gala, and I'll review it when it opens Oct. 2. It uses clever animation to create ants with some of the facial features of the stars who voice them, including Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone and Christopher Walken. Allen's dialogue, as a worker ant who becomes a revolutionary, is very funny. "It's tough to feel loved," he says, "when you're the middle child in a family of 5 million."

This year's gathering solidified Toronto's position as a festival second only to Cannes. Its timing helps; September is the launch month for the festival-type films of autumn. The only cloud on the horizon: Rumors that Cannes may switch to September. Oddly, Toronto is now so big and well-established that Cannes may be the first to blink.

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