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'Rock' and Shock

Meg Ryan bares all, Hayden Christensen loses his lightsaber, and Jack Black becomes a star -- our Toronto fest report

Toronto International Film Festival

Owen Gleiberman

It isn't rare to see a talented ''small'' filmmaker become a player in the industry. To be successful, however, and stay true to your creative muse -- that's a trickier proposition. It was 10 years ago, virtually to the day, that director Richard Linklater released ''Dazed and Confused'', his lovely, sprawling, dead-on portrait of American high school life during the 1970s. The film's slyly lyrical hangin'-in-the-parking-lot humanism suggested that Linklater was the rare American filmmaker who had what it takes to create terrific popular movies. Yet he has never enjoyed mainstream success, and it has often seemed as if that goal couldn't be further from his desires.

At least, that's what I thought until this year's Toronto International Film Festival. In an act of career reinvention comparable to Steven Soderbergh's in the late '90s, Linklater has now made an inspiring crowd-pleaser, ''The School of Rock'', that's the single most exciting film I saw in Toronto. It's a great, funny, joyous rock & roll fable that sounds, on the face of it, like an Adam Sandler reject but turns out to be a Hollywood movie with real magic in it. If, like me, you're the sort of person who didn't even think you liked Jack Black, you will watch, with a dazed but hardly confused grin on your face, as he reaches deep down into his riffing, pop-eyed, headbanging self to play a failed band musician who takes over a class of smarty-pants fifth graders and teaches them the only thing in the world he knows: the glory of rock. ''The School of Rock'' has a marvelously witty script by Mike White, and under Linklater's graceful hand, it shows you what can happen when a mainstream movie is made with -- say it loud! -- independent spirit.

Standing in line to see ''Shattered Glass'', a drama based on the scandal of New Republic journalist Stephen Glass, who was found in 1998 to have made up most of his feature stories from scratch, I kept hearing the prediction that this would be a movie for media insiders only. Wrong! Written and directed by Billy Ray, ''Shattered Glass'' turns out to be a devious and entertaining journalistic suspense story. From the moment that Hayden Christensen, in a revelatory performance, appears on-screen, flattering his coworkers from beneath baby-yuppie spectacles, we realize that we're seeing a new kind of office sociopath -- Sammy Glick meets the real-life Tom Ripley. As Glass' lies are peeled away, layer by layer, through the diligence of his editor, played by Peter Sarsgaard with an outrage as exquisite as it is understated, the movie exposes the ethos of an era in which perception and reality have become matters of convenience.

You've never seen a Robert Altman movie quite like ''The Company''. Based on a concept by its star, Neve Campbell, it's a dance film set amid the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and though the characters pass before us with Altmanesque fluidity, the drama -- by design -- is always less than you expect, a bubbly background to the dance. Altman sweeps you up in the ironically impersonal ardor of a dancer's life. Another veteran maverick with new tricks on display is Jim Jarmusch, whose ''Coffee and Cigarettes'', a series of dialogue sketches (a few dating from the '80s) powered by the title stimulants, proves that the fabled minimalist has become a virtuoso orchestrator of talk. The highlight: a hilarious, labyrinthine duel of egos between British actors Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan.

Movies about classical painters seldom work, but ''Girl With a Pearl Earring'' is a rare exception. It stars Colin Firth, sexy and forceful, as Johannes Vermeer, that 17th-century poet of light, and Scarlett Johansson as the maid who becomes his Beatrice. The drama of household eroticism and jealousy is conventional enough, but the film does a captivating job of showing how the entire story gets enfolded into a single painted image: Johansson, with the skin of a Renaissance angel, staring out at us as if through the centuries. A very different, but even more wildly heroic, tale of artistic creation is ''How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass'', in which director-star Mario Van Peebles transforms himself into his father, Melvin Van Peebles, to dramatize the making of the 1971 black-cinema landmark ''Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song''. This is one of the only movies about moviemaking that gets you to experience the megalomania, the discipline, and the economic madness.

It takes perversity to make a movie about Johnny ''Wadd'' Holmes set two years after he bottomed out of the porn industry. ''Wonderland'' stars Val Kilmer as the wasted, parasitical adult-film legend in his druggy descent; it chronicles his involvement in the 1981 Wonderland murders, a gruesome revenge slaying that freaked out L.A. Mostly reviled in Toronto, the film got something of a bum rap. The director, James Cox, overdoes the drugs-and-guns kineticism, but he taps the creepy, sordid fascination of a hedonist who forged his own hell.

I went into ''The Agronomist'', Jonathan Demme's documentary about Haitian radio freedom fighter Jean Dominique, hoping that it would illuminate the soul of Haiti's terrible struggle. The movie, however, is more dutiful than insightful: The director was friends with the gauntly charismatic Dominique, yet we learn precious little about him apart from his political idealism, which the movie enshrines to the point of idolatry. For a documentary that reveals as much as it celebrates, I vastly preferred ''End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones''. It's a seismic snapshot of the early days of punk, yet it also chronicles the amazing discord and unhappiness that propelled this most ecstatic of thrash bands. Call it the real school of rock.

Lisa Schwarzbaum

Meg Ryan got naked, and her act of art -- or is it exhibitionism? -- made headlines at this year's Toronto film festival. I saw a couple of terrific, nonheadliner beauties, and one fabulous, talk-of-the-town black-and-white Canadian mini-epic starring Isabella Rossellini as a rich, Depression-era amputee whose spirits lift when she receives the gift of beer-filled glass legs. But back to Meg Ryan.

In ''In the Cut'', the Hollywood star removes her clothes for erotic interludes as Frannie, a sexually restless teacher and poet. The movie, adapted from the dark 1995 novel by Susanna Moore (who cowrote the script), sets the poet's sex-and-death urges against the terror of a serial killer on the loose in New York; Frannie finds excitement in the rough attention of a police detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating the murders. Jane Campion's highly anticipated, bloody, self-conscious, estrogenic take on a testosteronic movie genre is also a frustratingly unconvincing expression of ''female sensibility,'' filled with dreamy details that can't take the place of tonal coherence.

A trifecta of festival filmmaking trends converges in ''21 Grams'', Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's coolly handsome feature follow-up to Amores Perros: grim sex, hardened violence, and a slivered storytelling style that jumps between past and present until the accumulated scenes focus into a whole. The title refers to the amount of weight a body is said to lose at the moment of death, although any spiritual heft is negligible: The intersecting fates of Sean Penn as a math professor gasping from heart disease, Naomi Watts as a young widow, and Benicio Del Toro as an ex-con who has found religion gong with overtones of redemption, but, really, what movie isn't about redemption? (Souls are saved in ''Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star''.) The actors' intense, impressively unglamorous performances won awards at the Venice International Film Festival, and we may hear more applause at year's end. But as with ''In the Cut'', the cinematic styling becomes its own arbitrary character.

Another trend from Toronto: A lot of movies were about...nothing! Yet as witty inconsequentiality goes, there's much to be said for the glittering archness of ''Bright Young Things'', a baubly adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's emblematic 1930 social satire, ''Vile Bodies'', that marks the bright directorial debut of actor and writer Stephen Fry. So many smart-set actors make cameo appearances in Fry's well-paced trifle that it's quicker to say that Ian McKellen doesn't appear than that Dan Aykroyd, Stockard Channing, Peter O'Toole, and 95-year-old Sir John Mills do.

Among current British masters of charming nothingness, meanwhile, no one beats Richard Curtis, the blockbuster writer of ''Four Weddings and a Funeral'', who makes his own directorial debut with ''Love Actually''. An official review must wait, since the crowd-pleasing sprig of Christmas mistletoe was shown as a ''work in progress.'' But even in flux, the compendium of eight little love stories -- including that of a prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, and his secretary -- oozes cheery sentimentality de-sapped by Curtis' unmatchable sense of comic timing. (The even posher smart-set cast also includes Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney, and Rowan Atkinson.)

And now, to movies about something. ''Broken Wings'', a powerful Israeli film, has nothing at all to do with global politics. Yet Nir Bergman's honest, precisely edited first feature packs the world into the lives of one ordinary family trying to get by, following the death of a husband and father. ''Good Morning, Night'' is richly challenging in its philosophical scope and subtlety. The ground that Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio crosses in this reverberating drama is covered with the blood of Italy's former prime minister Aldo Moro, who was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigade in 1978. But the atmosphere Bellocchio breathes is that of a world shocked and aged by the political extremism of 9/11.

''The Barbarian Invasions'' killed at Cannes (where audiences sighed for the groovy days of free love and Euro-Marxism), but I was left dry-eyed by Quebecois director Denys Arcand's pedantic intergenerational soap opera (the festival's opening-night selection). While a world-weary 53-year-old liberal father lounges his way to a leisurely cancer death, his conservative businessman son gathers his father's old friends and lovers at the fading libertine's bedside.

''The Human Stain'' killed as a 2000 best-selling novel by Philip Roth, and it's about plenty: race, religion, class, self-invention, secrets, lies, and sex. Still, in genteel movie form, it's difficult to get past the off-key, high-gloss casting: Anthony Hopkins, unshakably Welsh, can't convince an audience that his is an utterly American story; Nicole Kidman's paralyzingly elegant grace contradicts her role as a cleaning lady; Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is bleached clean of Jewishness by Gary Sinise. No stains, no gains!

So here's to glass legs filled with beer, and ''The Saddest Music in the World''. The distinctive Winnipeg miniaturist Guy Maddin may just get his best and worst wish for greater popularity with this typically delirious, exquisitely crafted pastiche of ''old movie'' design and droll sensibility: His is a looking-glass world adjacent to those of Edward Gorey and David Lynch, where nations compete for the title award, and Canada battles the U.S. most vehemently. Certainly Rossellini deserves a prize for her intrepid tastes in auteurist projects -- and for representing the Toronto film festival at its most refreshing, as an antidote to ongoing coverage of Meg Ryan's boobs.

Originally posted Sep 26, 2003 Published in issue #730 Sep 26, 2003 Order article reprints