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Sleeper from Chicago directors wakes up Toronto

TORONTO, Canada--Like scouts at a pre-season game, the North American movie industry is gathered here in Toronto, eyeing the developing autumn movie season. The Toronto Film Festival, now in its 21st year, is the major launching pad for many of the films that will be honored, applauded and damned during Oscar Season, which started, in case you missed it, on Labor Day.

Toronto is one of the biggest festivals in the world. Nearly 300 films screen from 8 a.m. to midnight in some 20 venues, and the city's film fans, who represent the highest per-capita movie attendance in North America, fill most of them. It is routine to emerge from a 10 p.m. screening to find a two-block lineup outside of ticket holders waiting for the "Midnight Madness" program.

Some of the hits at Toronto this year premiered last May at Cannes, and have been waiting in the wings for their autumn launch. Those titles include Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," the powerful story of a simple-minded British girl and her marriage to a crew member North Sea oil rig; Patrice Leconte's "Ridicule," set at the absurdly mannered court of Louis the XVI; and "Some Mother's Son," with Helen Mirren as the mother of an IRA hunger striker. Other films come fresh from European triumphs, like Neil Jordan's "Michael Collins," about the IRA hero, which just won the Venice Film Festival, and Abel Ferrara's "The Funeral," which won an acting award for Chris Penn at Venice.

But what everyone is looking for, every year at Toronto, is an unsung sleeper, a film like "Chariots of Fire" or "Diva," which were launched here to great success. This year, after plunging into three or four screenings a day, I think the leading candidate for Sleeper of the Year (at mid-festival, anyway) is "Bound," a gory black comedy in the blood-soaked tradition of "Blood Simple," "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction."

Directed by two Chicagoans, brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, "Bound" stars Gina Gershon in a spectacular comeback performance after she went down with the good ship "Showgirls." She was the more experienced Vegas danger in that film (and inspired most of the film's few good notices). This time, she's a tattooed lesbian ex-con, who moves into an apartment next door to a mid-level Chicago Mafioso (Joe Pantoliano) and his seemingly ditzy girl friend (Jennifer Tilly). Tilly immediately hits on Gershon, but after steamy sex the plot deepens, widens and turns in upon itself, in a dark comedy involving murder, triple-crosses, close calls, gruesome desperation quick thinking, and the most literal scene of money-laundering I can imagine.

At least 20 people fled from the screening of "Bound" I attended during a scene in which a mob enforcer prepares to snip off a turncoat's fingers. But the scene was not as gory as they probably feared; the Wachowskis are adept at taking us to the brink of the unacceptable, and even peering over, but never quite jumping. The movie has one of those plots that piles twist upon twist until it seems impossible to resolve; it is fun, smart, and very well done. Another film winning great praise here is "Big Night," co-directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, who also star along with Tony Shalhoub, Ian Holm, Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini in a movie set in an Italian restaurant that is going broke because the food is too good. Tucci is the brother who tries to keep the restaurant above water; Shalhoub is the brother obsessed with great cuisine. When a rival Italian restaurateur (Holm) announces he has persuaded Louis Prima to visit their restaurant, the brothers prepare the most delicious movie meal I've seen since "Babette's Feast'--while meanwhile secrets are revealed and lives are changed. "Big Night" is the kind of movie that generates its own audiences with word of mouth; people were smiling about it here for days after the screenings.

Also well-received here:

* "Mother," by Albert Brooks, stars Brooks as a twice-divorced man who decides to start all over by moving back in with his mother (Debbie Reynolds, wonderful in her first feature role in 25 years). Brooks finds humor in real-life situations, and Reynolds in inspired as his straight-woman, deadpanning her way through supermarket visits and an encounter with the world's largest frozen cheese.

* "Fetishes" is the new documentary by Nick Broomfield, whose "Heidi Fleiss--Hollywood Madam" is one of 1996's best films. This time he spent two months inside an expensive Manhattan s&m emporium, interviewing the dominant mistresses and their clients about their bizarre tastes and practices. There were snickers early in the screening, but the film has an underlying honesty and sincerity that is convincing; we begin to understand how what goes on in the establish is not prostitution but a form, however unconventional, of therapy.

* "Caught," by Robert M. Young, is the story of a young drifter (Arie Verveen) is taken into the household of a New York fish shop owner (Edward James Olmos) and his wife (Maria Conchita Alonso). Olmos treats the youth like his son; Alonso unexpectedly becomes his lover. Then their real son (Steven Schub) comes to visit; he's an obnoxious cokehead with a failing career in stand-up comedy, and he upsets the household's fragile balance with tragic consequences. The film is a convincing portrait of obsessive sex, and a poignant story of love and dreams.

* "Shine," an audience favorite, is based on the true story of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott. Dominated from childhood by a possessive and probably insane father, the boy becomes a brilliant performer, but then goes mad. The story shows his rise to greatness, his close relationship with an elderly London music instructor (Sir John Geilgud), his breakdown, and his eventual return to the concert stage with the help of an astrologer (Lynn Redgrave) who becomes his wife. The Helfgott character is clearly insane for much of the movie, but in an engaging way--he jokes, he clowns, as if to deflect criticism.

* Paul Cox's "Lust and Revenge" is another involved and wholly original drama from the Australian who makes distinctive films about unusual but somehow convincing people. Here he combines a rich woman who wants to be a patron of the arts; her rich father and his slick mistress; an engaging lesbian sculptor; a working-class man hired to be her model; the man's frigid wife; the wife's wacko guru, and several other characters. It is a comedy, but proceeding from truth, not gags.

* "Unhook the Stars," directed by Nick Cassavetes, stars his mother, Gene Rowlands, in another of her performances as a fabulous dame of a certain age. A widow whose daughter has just walked out of the house and whose son wants her to move to San Francisco, she becomes the unpaid babysitter of the little son of the tough-talking, colorful party animal across the street (Marisa Tomei). That could lead in a predictable direction, but the movie is about the woman's inner emotional landscape, not whether she's a good babysitter, and eventually she finds an unexpected freedom. Gerard Depardieu is the truck driver from Montreal who is the catalyst.

* Two other well-received films were about the early love affairs of famous men. "The Whole Wide World" stars Vincent D'Onofrio as the pulp writer Robert E. Howard ("Conan the Barbarian"); Renee Zellwager is the Texas teacher who loves him, but cannot liberate him from his possessive mother or his obsession with his fiction. "Infinity," directed by Matthew Broderick and written by his mother, Patricia, is based on an early marriage of the atomic physicist Richard Feynman (Broderick), who brought his tubercular young wife (Patricia Arquette) to live nearby as he worked on the bomb at Los Alamos.

This year's Toronto festival has five days to go, and many big premieres (Tom Hanks' directorial debut in "That Thing You Do" is promised for the weekend). After a long summer of explosions, violence and special effects, it is like a tonic, reminding me that making good movies is still possible, and seeing them is still wonderful.

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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