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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Up-and-comer tells tales of disaffected youth with grace

TORONTO, Ont. -- This kid David Gordon Green is 29 years old, and he is a great filmmaker. He walked onto the stage at the Toronto Film Festival wearing jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops, and said he'd gotten worked up over the premiere of his new film and stubbed his little toe on his coffee table and broken it. "It's twice the size it was an hour ago," he said morosely, peering down at the injured digit. And then he showed us "Undertow," and this film is a masterpiece.

Green has his own voice, his own tone, his own world. He tells stories of wandering and disaffected young people -- not rebels, not outcasts, just somehow lost -- who live in an American South of empty fields and marginal homes and rusted-out remnants of bankrupt manufacturing enterprises. They yearn to love and belong, spend moments of peace and gentleness, live in a world where terrible things can happen. He photographs them with the attention of an artist. He gives them things to say that you have never heard anyone say before, and yet it always sounds as if they would say them.

His first film, "George Washington," made in 2001, was an astonishing debut in which a young character dies and his death is concealed and no one is really to blame and a great sadness grows. Then at Sundance 2003 came "All the Real Girls" (2003), about a boy who has made meaningless love to many girls but now meets a girl he really loves, and hesitates to touch her because it would reduce her to being like all of the others. Those films had a distinctive, assured voice, unlike any I had heard before; they were unique in story and style while still somehow seeming familiar, as if their world was not new but simply forgotten.

Now here is "Undertow," about two boys being raised in a rural district by their father, who mourns the death of his wife. The older boy gets in trouble, runs a nail through his foot, loves his little brother. One day their father's brother turns up fresh from prison, and moves in. He is not a nice man. He wants the gold coins left by the boys' grandfather. His greed leads to death and danger, and an odyssey by the two boys across the worn-out local landscape. They meet homeless kids their age, get close to trouble but not in it, build a shelter in a junkyard. All the time the younger brother eats strange things and they make him sick.

I pause in frustration at such a bald plot outline. Nothing I have written can convey the poetry and beauty of the film. The plot never really engages as it would in a traditional film; it's more like a surface the characters can skate over on their way to growing up. Green said he was inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the adventure stories of Poe, Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, and modern crime stories like In Cold Blood. That seems like an unlikely list, until you see the film and realize it really does contain all of those inspirations. And lives up to them, too.

* * *

Kevin Spacey absolutely can sing. He could quit the day job. In his new film "Beyond the Sea" he plays Bobby Darin, a singer he has said he was born to portray. He does look a lot like him. The movie has many songs in it, and Spacey sings them himself, and he sings them damned well. It takes nerve to put yourself on the line like that, but he knew what he was doing.

The movie, which premiered at a Toronto gala on Saturday night, follows a fairly familiar biopic formula: rags to riches, romance that grows stale, early death looming on the horizon. Kate Bosworth plays Sandra Dee, Darin's wife. They love each other but they are an odd fit and ill-suited, and at one point he unkindly complains, "Warren Beatty is there with Leslie Caron who was nominated for an Oscar, and I'm there with Gidget." In a fresh touch, they both throw clothes into suitcases and move out of the house simultaneously. The movie has some problems, including a strange structure involving Darin as a child commenting on his own adult life, but it also has real qualities, including musical numbers that really deliver.

* * *

That Nick Nolte, what a card. He shambled onstage before the Toronto premiere of his "Clean," wearing a long frock coat that made him look like the landlord of the House of the Seven Gables. In "Clean," he plays a man raising his young grandson while the boy's mother (Cannes best actress winner Maggie Cheung) tries to get off drugs.

"I love Canada," Nolte told the Toronto audience in that hoarse, rough voice of his. Applause. "And of all the cities -- not just in Canada, but in the world -- the one I love the most is -- Montreal."

* * *

Paris and Nicky Hilton, get out of town. The Dahl sisters are here. Lolo, Melinda and Caitlin Dahl, dressed for a walk on the wild side, were among the celebrities at the 20th annual luncheon sponsored by Hollywood gossip legend George Christy. All three have movies coming out: "Slave to Love"(Lolo), "The Mogols" (Melinda), and "504" (Caitlin). I sat near Lolo at the Christy lunch, and observed that she skipped dessert, perhaps not because she was dieting, but simply because there was no room for anything more inside the clothes she was wearing. I gotta say those Dahl girls really brighten up a room.

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