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All's fair in Toronto

TORONTO -- "I was trying to think what the summer movie season was like," David Mamet said, "and I realized it was like the state fair."

It was the first cup of coffee for both of us, in a Toronto hotel room that was furnished, oddly, with four straight chairs. We sat with our knees crossed, like men trying to appear at ease during an interrogation.

"First of all, what's the prime attraction at a state fair? The equipment! You go to see the new models of tractors. Same with summer movies. The new technology. The new vehicles and airplanes. The special effects. Then, of course, at a state fair, you want a glimpse of the hoochie-coochie show. And the food: candy, hot dogs, pop, nachos. The same at the state fair and at the movies."

He took a sip of his coffee.

"Oh, and of course the livestock judging. Everyone wants to see the cow that sold for a record price. In the summer movies, the movie stars are the prize bulls, and everybody is just fascinated by how much money they were paid."

Mamet was here at the Toronto Film Festival to help launch the autumn movie season. The playwright and director, who made his name in Chicago, now lives in Vermont ("where I just laugh at the winters after Chicago") with his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon. She stars in "The Spanish Prisoner," his new movie about an elaborate con game. Mamet also wrote "The Edge," a Toronto entry about men lost in the wilderness.

"The Spanish Prisoner" weaves a hypnotic labyrinth of deception, as they say in the movie ads. Campbell Scott plays a man with a formula worth millions to an international conglomerate, and there are a lot of people who would like to get it away from him. More I must not reveal.

Mamet and I talked for a long time, and I will report at greater length when his movie opens. I spent even longer the other night with Spike Lee, who is here with his powerful documentary "Four Little Girls," but I can't say we talked.

There was a dinner in a restaurant, and I sat on Spike's right. On my right was a dental surgeon who runs an art gallery, and across from him was a woman who supervises a psychiatric care center, and they were fascinating dinner companions - and just as well, because Spike was preoccupied.

That was because on his left was seated Darrell Walker, the former Chicago Bulls player who is now coach of the Toronto Raptors. Spike fell deep into talk of basketball strategy with Walker, as they analyzed the likely shape of the NBA a year from now - the first year A.M. (after Michael).

Walker is a really nice guy, a graduate of Corliss High on the Chicago South Side, who said, "My team is young. I have a bunch of kids. That's why they can beat the Bulls sometimes. You never know what they'll do on any given night."

Lee said to me, "You tell your critic partner that the Knicks are gonna whup the Bulls' - - - this year."

"That's what you said last year," I said.

"This year's going to be different. Bulls are old and tired."

"And Patrick Ewing is young and uninjured?"

Lee studied his dinner plate.

"What do you think about your TV partner being such a big Bulls fan?" Walker asked me.

"I'm happy for him," I said. "I'm glad he finally found something he can love the way I love the movies."

The biggest weeper at this year's fest is "Wings Of The Dove," based on the Henry James novel and starring Helena Bonham Carter as a woman who tries to marry off the man she loves to a rich, orphaned, dying American heiress, so that she and her lover can live on the American's money after she dies. But it is ever so much more complicated than that, as it always is with James, especially because all of the characters in the movie really do love one another, even the two women.

There was much snuffling and wiping of eyeglasses at the gala screening, and women powdering their noses as the credits rolled. There is nothing like the rainy winter in Venice to provide a suitably melancholy setting for the breaking of good hearts. These are all signs that the autumn Oscar derby is under way, and that Carter and Alison Elliott, who plays the American, are likely nominees.

If summer is the state fair at the movies, then autumn is quality time, when we get the prestigious costume adaptations of great English novels. The works of Jane Austen have been picked over in recent years, and now James is the preferred literary source. After last year's "Portrait Of A Lady," comes now "Wings of the Dove" and, later in the festival, "Washington Square," starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as a bright but plain daughter of a rich doctor (Albert Finney), who is courted by a dashing man (Ben Chaplin) who may be after her money; Maggie Smith plays her wary aunt.

After James, the next distinguished source may be Virginia Woolf, whose Mrs. Dalloway has been made into a film. Vanessa Redgrave stars as a woman giving her annual party, which inspires thoughts of the man she might have married and the man she did marry.

What is always enjoyable about all of these movies, apart from their costumes, their locations, their skill and their ambition, is their language: It is a pleasure to hear passion expressed by the literate, because they have so many more ways of stating it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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