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Anton Sirius' Day Three at the Toronto Film Festival: THE WISDOM OF CROCODILES, THE CUP, SPRING FORWARD...

Hey folks, Harry here once again with another fantastic day of updates from our main man in Toronto.... Anton Sirius! As is usually the case with large amounts of Film Festival Flicks, you have to read through all the reviews to find the gem amongst the coal. What below is the precious flicker that your ticker is beating to? To each their own... here's Anton...

Saturday the 11th

Some of you have been complaining to me about my incessant 'name-dropping'. To this I must reply that I am attending the Toronto International Film Festival, not some art-house revival in Squaresville, and to not follow the time-honored name-dropping tradition would be a slap in the face to both the legions of schmoozers past and to the festival itself.

I have an interview upcoming with legendary HK director Po Chih Leong. He's here with the Wisdom of Crocodiles- if you've got any questions for him e-mail them to me at The Natasha Lyonne interview is up in the air, though- she hasn't arrived in town yet, having been called away for some last-minute part reading or some such. Keep those questions coming, though. She's a trooper, and I'm sure she'll swing by at some point.

I didn't get in to Dogma tonight, damn your eyes (too late!)- all my so-called friends were jealously hording their precious ducats, and somehow I didn't feel like paying a scalper $100 to see it, even if it was only Canadian funny-money.

I must admit, tomorrow's Galas have me somewhat less than excited (oh, hey Mary-Louise! How's it going?)- Snow Falling On Cedars AND Cider House Rules? I like John Irving, don't get me wrong, but after Garp and the aborted Owen Meany I'm really not sure how well his books can adapt to the screen. I'll see it at some point, but probably (hang on- Molly! Hi! Call me later!) give the Gala a miss. Besides, it would be a tremendous anti-climax after American Beauty!

Book recommendation: I'm halfway through When Rabbit Howls, one of the books Magdalena left for me in my suite. It's a co-operative autobiography by the 90+ personalities of Multiple Personality Disorder sufferer Truddi Chase, and it gives a fascinating glimpse (oh, there goes Frank Whaley- he's here with his directorial debut, Joe the King. Nice guy- haven't seen him since my days hanging with Hughes) into the way your human brains work. Personally I've always found people staring into mirrors interesting to observe, but when the mirror has shattered into a thousand pieces, each one containing a different glimpse… wow. Bizarre, mind-blowing stuff.

Now on to the reviews:

The Wisdom of Crocodiles (UK 1999, directed by Po Chih Leong.)

Over the years the vampire genre has splintered and mutated, producing all sorts of Gawd-awful flotsam (Lifeforce, anyone?) But the Wisdom of Crocodiles is a refreshing twist on the old formula, and proves that with just a little thought and care there's still some life in the old corpse yet.

Jude Law plays a man with a problem- his girlfriends keep dying. This becomes Elina Lowensoen's problem when they begin seeing each other. Their cat-and-mouse courtship, with the police hovering around the edges, provides enough surface tension to glide the story through to its climax. All along, underneath, the dark things stir…

The Wisdom of Crocodiles has style to spare. The whole film has a very retro-Victorian feel, and while shot in London features no recognizable landmarks or postcard shots, nor any gleaming modern office towers. This is a London that Old Man Moriarty would be quite at home in. Po Chih Leong, working in the west for the first time, has no difficulties transferring his HK sensibilities to the new environment. He gets stellar work out of Jude Law, whose feral, menacing presence is something of a revelation. Near-miss LOTR'er Timothy Spall has a key role as Law's foil in the police, and gives some glimpses as to what he could have done as Gimli. And yes, vampire fans, there is blood- not a lot by HK standards, perhaps, but in the hands of a master a little goes a long way.

The Cup (1999, Bhutan. Directed by Khyentse Norbu)

The Cup is one of those films usually labeled 'charming' by typical Western critics- by which they winkingly mean, 'Oh, look at the cute little Third World film industry pretending to be all grown up.' But the fact of the matter is, the Cup is not 'charming' at all- it has some very real things to say, and it says them in ways very different from 'grown up' North American film.

In 1998 a Tibetan monastery in India receives two new students, just escaped from occupied Tibet. One of them falls in with the 'bad' crowd of students, the ones who play practical jokes on monks who sleep through prayer, the ones who have all the fun. Part of that fun involves sneaking out at night to watch matches from the World Cup (the globe's premier footb… er, soccer tourney). Eventually they are busted and must channel their energy into finding a way to watch the Final without being kicked out of the monastery.

Part of that 'charm' comes from the movie's history- Norbu is a Buddhist monk himself who studied film in New York and worked with Bertolucci on Little Buddha. And he uses an all-monk cast, too. (This decision pays off by the end of the film, but in the beginning a few of the actors seem to be merely reciting their lines as opposed to delivering them.) And there is something almost too cool for school about a Buddhist comedy about soccer. But, to use a phrase I picked up somewhere, look closer. Norbe has crafted this film very carefully, and one can find as many levels as one is looking for in it. He uses nature in much the same way Ang Lee does for instance, showing the beauty and indifference of the environment to busy little humans and their plans. And, like all good Buddhist lessons, the Cup is very funny at times- especially when it examines the difference between the 'stereotypical' older monks and the young students.

OK, I guess the Cup really is charming. But this is the absolute last time we use that word- I'm putting my foot down.

Spring Forward (USA 1999, directed by Tom Gilroy.)

I'm warning you people up front: Spring Forward is an actor's movie, directed by an actor, starring comsummate actor Ned Beatty, and was constructed as an experiment in acting. If you were disappointed that My Dinner With Andre wasn't a cannibal flick, then this movie is not for you.

Still here? Good. Spring Forward rocks. Here's the idea at its core- Spring Forward concerns itself with the friendship between two co-workers in a city Parks & Rec department, one near retirement and the other just hired. The film takes place over the course of a year and was shot in real time- meaning, that each scene is in real time and features very little editing, and once all the spring scenes were shot they packed everything up and went their separate ways, hooking up again months later for the next shoot.

The conversation flows freely between the two, and both Beatty and Liv Schreiber do amazing jobs mapping out their burgeoning relationship. The supporting cast includes such folk as Ian Hart and Campbell Scott, and they too do solid work. The direction by Gilroy is quite good, and what would on the surface seem to require nothing more than pointing a camera at a couple of guys talking turns out to need a level of confidence and maturity that Gilroy easily provides. The movie is funny and moving, and was a real treat. It should see some sort of release- check it out if you can.

Human Traffic (UK 1999, written & directed by Justin Kerrigan)

There's an energy to recent UK films, an unmistakable 'now' vibe that seems almost like a rebellion against decades of stuffy period pieces and Ken Loach docudramas.

But sod all that- no way I'm getting THAT heavy in a review for this flick.

Human Traffic, the debut film from Justin Kerrigan, is about a weekend in the life of five mates living in Cardiff. That's it, that's the whole plot. They club, they trip, they laugh, they shag, they come down. It's like Trainspotting with all the nasty dead baby bits taken out. In fact, that seems to be the point. This is a 'youth culture' movie where the worst thing that happens is Sunday brunch with your parents. No addictions, no drug deals gone wrong; just five kids engaged in chemical primal scream therapy as a release from the mundane horrors of their lives.

You've seen Trainspotting (or Nowhere, or any of a dozen other films) so you know what to expect in terms of camera trickery. Human Traffic is very much part of the Ralph Kramden School (pan, zoom, right in the kisser!) The ratio of screen time between 'reality' and the characters' various fantasies- everything from taking it up the ass from your boss to a new British national anthem- is probably 50/50. The fourth wall isn't broken so much as sneeringly ignored from the very first frame. But all this too serves a purpose- in the group's e-fueled world there are no strangers or passive observers, only friends and participants. They take the camera by the hand and lead it on a guided tour of the home they've found inside the chaos.

Does Human Traffic measure up to the ubiquitous Trainspotting (the film it will inevitably be compared and linked to?) Perhaps not. The soundtrack isn't quite as good, and the film sags a bit in the home stretch, which isn't surprising considering that the most suspenseful plotline is whether Jiff and Lulu finally hook up. On the other hand, any movie with the Prophet Bill Hicks as its patron saint is bound to kick some serious ass. And it has its own unique strengths, not least of which is its absolute refusal to moralize. It's almost a shame. Human Traffic tries so very, very hard to convince you it's shallow, but in the end its message comes through loud and clear.

American Beauty (USA 1999, directed by Sam Mendes)

Coming into the festival I had pretty much a dead heat in my Favorite Movie of the Year So Far category between Iron Giant and the Sixth Sense. So much for that. And I know that Harry is sticking with his Green Mile pick but I honestly, right at this moment, cannot imagine a film this year being better than American Beauty. Considering what's yet to come it could well end up second or fifth or whatever when it's all said and done. But right now, in the afterglow? No chance.

American Beauty chronicles the last chapter in the life of Lester Burnham, a dead soul trapped in suburbia (that's not really a spoiler- Lester himself tells you right off the bat.) Many films have been made in recent years about the awful spiritual void that is the 'burbs (Kevin Spacey even starred in one, the Ref), and nearly as many have been made about white guys and their problems, but American Beauty is different. Unlike, say, Bulworth (another film about the redemptive/destructive power of truth and honest emotion), there is no 'trigger' for Lester's epiphany, no easy answer for why Mr. Normal suddenly decides that Normal itself is a sickness to be cured rather than a worthy goal. In that respect it is far more subversive than the more obviously radical Bulworth- if Lester can do it, anyone can.

Sam Mendes establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with here. His direction is confident and he handles some potentially ugly subject matter with grace and no small amount of bravery. (He deserves bonus points for nicely deconstructing the teenage girl, older man fantasy too.) And while his cast is hugely talented, he has them all performing at their peak here- this is probably Spacey's best work to date, Annette Bening injects a tremendous amount of humanity in a character that could easily have been a caricature and Thora Birch is merely terrific as their daughter Jane. I can't forget Wes Bentley and Mena Suvari, either- both are great. Peter Gallagher and Chris Cooper work wonders, and even Allison Janney's small performance as Ricky's mother is heart-breaking. Hm, yes, that's all of them. Do they give that many Oscars in a year? Am I gushing? Tough; they deserve it.

American Beauty is a special film, one deserving of all the buzz it's been generating. The things it has to say are things that can't be said enough- about people; about modern America; about how we look at the world. And how, sometimes, the world looks back.

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