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ARKIB : 06/09/2003

Toronto film fest puts on the ritz with promising movie lineup

TORONTO Sept 5 - A humdrum lineup at last spring's Cannes Film Festival had movie fans wondering if Hollywood had turned its back on such glitzy events.

Not to worry. North America's premiere showcase, the Toronto International Film Festival, opens Thursday with an impressive roster of celebrity-driven movies, foreign films, independent features and documentaries.

In its 28th year, the 10-day festival is a launch pad for big fall releases and films with Academy Awards prospects. With eager audiences, Toronto also is known as a film-lovers' festival, unlike Cannes or Sundance, which are aimed at filmmakers and industry insiders.

Films also are not competing for prizes at Toronto as they are at many festivals, making it more laid back.

``It's a friendly festival. They're not out to cut your head off,'' said Ridley Scott, coming to Toronto with his comic drama ``Matchstick Men,'' starring Nicolas Cage, and a director's cut of his 1979 horror hit ``Alien.'' ``It's a kinder and gentler place.''

This year's festival presents 254 feature-length movies and 85 short films from 55 countries.

Highlights include Denzel Washington's thriller ``Out of Time''; the ensemble romance ``Love Actually,'' featuring Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson; Adrien Brody's offbeat ventriloquism tale ``Dummy''; ``21 Grams,'' a sombre character drama with Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts; ``Shattered Glass,'' with Hayden Christensen in the story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass; and Neil Young's concert film ``Greendale.''

There had been speculation that studios and talent might be gun-shy about Toronto after the scare over severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, crippled the city's tourism industry.

With a health warning on Toronto travel lifted months ago, the festival has encountered no reluctance from studios, filmmakers or audiences about attending, said Piers Handling, the event's director.

``We were never worried about SARS,'' said Tom Ortenberg, head of Lions Gate Films, which is showing about a dozen films at the festival, including Nicole Kidman's ``Dogville.'' ``Our chances of getting struck by lightning were always greater than getting ill in Toronto.''

This year's festival has no formal events to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. After the attacks in 2001, the festival shut down for a day, and last year, its lineup included several Sept. 11-themed movies.

Even so, the festival begins with one reminder of Sept. 11. The opening-night film, writer-director Denys Arcand's ``The Barbarian Invasions,'' includes brief footage of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

Arcand uses the footage as an introduction to a TV historian's comparison of the United States to the Roman Empire as it was besieged by outside forces that led to its downfall.

``He says Sept. 11 was the first time that the barbarians have launched a successful attack into the heart of the empire,'' Arcand said. ``And maybe that date will be viewed in future centuries as the beginning of the great barbarian invasions.''

``The Barbarian Invasions'' was one of the few triumphs at Cannes, where it earned the screenplay prize for Arcand and the best-actress award for Marie-Josee Croze, who plays a heroin addict enlisted to score illegal drugs that ease a dying man's pain.

Croze's tremendous performance is among an especially strong crop of intriguing female roles at the Toronto festival. Among them: ``In the Cut,'' director Jane Campion's moody murder thriller starring Meg Ryan; John Sayles' ``Casa de los Babys,'' whose ensemble cast includes Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden and Daryl Hannah in the story of American women adopting children in Latin America; Sarah Polley as a dying mother in ``My Life Without Me''; Cate Blanchett in ``Veronica Guerin,'' based on the true story of a slain Irish journalist; Robert Altman's ballet drama ``The Company,'' starring Neve Campbell; and ``Pieces of April,'' with Katie Holmes as a black-sheep daughter trying to reconnect with her dying mother (Patricia Clarkson).

Along with ``Dogville,'' Kidman appears in a second Toronto film, co-starring with Anthony Hopkins in ``The Human Stain,'' adapted from Philip Roth's novel.

The festival could prove a coming-out party for 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson, gradually making the transition from teen roles.

Johansson has two plum adult roles at Toronto: co-starring with Bill Murray in Sofia Coppola's ``Lost in Translation,'' a quirky tale of friendship between two Americans visiting Japan, and with Colin Firth in ``Girl With a Pearl Earring,'' about a maidservant in the household of 17th century painter Vermeer.

``I think she definitely carries herself beyond her years,'' Coppola said. ``She has a unique quality and look about her, and a sort of calmness or strategy where she's not performing all the time. Certain people, they have something, and you can see it in her, sort of a wise look in her eyes.''

On the Net:

Toronto Film Festival Web site: http://www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/2003/default.asp - AP

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