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Ontario Scenario 

When air traffic was grounded after the 2001 terrorist attacks, movie stars at the Toronto International Film Festival rented cars to drive home across the heavily fortified border. Like other expected celebrities, Mick Jagger couldn’t get into Canada for his scheduled media blitz. Screenings were cancelled for the day, parties for the remainder of the normally glamorous event. For a while, entertainment seemed incredibly superficial.

But the show must go on. 11’09”01 was chosen as a fitting way to commemorate the anniversary at Toronto 2002, which began last Thursday and ends this weekend. The film is a compilation of 11 shorts by a variety of directors — including Sean Penn, Mira Nair, Ken Loach and Danis Tanovic of No Man’s Land — who drew inspiration from last September’s tragedy. Each segment is 11 minutes and nine seconds long. A few generated controversy.

Variety reported last month that three of the pieces are anti-American in tone, particularly a perspective on suicide bombers by Youssel Chahine of Egypt. Some journalists here have speculated that Thursday’s public screening of 11’09”01 might attract protesters — Toronto has one of the world’s largest Jewish populations. Hopefully, the shorts in question are not pure propaganda, and freedom of expression will prevail. Art, after all, is supposed to provoke.

History and politics come together in Frida. This biographical account of bisexual Mexican painter and leftist Frida Kahlo, played by Salma Hayek, depicts her struggle to endure lifelong physical pain from injuries suffered in a bus accident. During the 1930s and 1940s, her emotional anguish comes from a marriage to muralist Diego Rivera, a charming serial womanizer played by Alfred Molina. Ashley Judd is on hand as a socialite dazzled by radical chic. Antonio Banderas has a cameo as Rivera’s professional rival David Alfaro Siqueros. Geoffrey Rush portrays Leon Trotsky, the doomed Soviet leader on the run from Stalin.

What could have been a compelling portrait instead becomes alternately affecting and annoying. Despite uneven performances, the interesting cast is not the culprit. Director Julie Taymor, who created The Lion King for Broadway, unnecessarily animates several of Kahlo’s already fanciful paintings. The love story eclipses the historical context rather than exploring the curious contradiction between Kahlo’s personal and political liberation.

Romance also obscures politics in a tale that traces Indochina’s century of conflict. The Quiet American, adapted from Graham Greene’s masterful 1956 novel, concerns an aging British reporter covering the French chapter of the Vietnam War. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is contentedly involved with a much younger local woman named Phuong (Hai Yen Do), until a U.S. diplomat arrives in Saigon to disrupt their cozy life together — not to mention the balance of power in that embattled country. Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) is a seemingly naïve idealist who believes his values can save both Phuong and her homeland.

Australian director Philip Noyce dispenses with the book’s satirical observations on the French military, a literary device that presaged how the Yanks would run the war a decade later. Worse, Caine is far too direct for the role. Fowler should reflect Greene’s reserve and dry, cynical wit. Fraser fares better, but doesn’t quite capture the duplicitous character beneath his rah-rah surface.

Michelle Pfeiffer, on the other hand, is entirely effective as a caring mother with a soul of ice in White Oleander. The compelling saga centers on a teenager (newcomer Alison Lohman) who grows up too quickly when her manipulative mom goes to jail for murder. The girl has two foster parents along the way. Robin Wright Penn appears as a Southerner with born-again intentions and Renee Zellweger as a decent but ultimately fragile actress. Although this sounds a bit like soap opera, the drama cuts deeper than most TV pot-boilers or films about family dysfunction.

Lohman, Pfeiffer and Wright Penn are in Toronto to promote White Oleander. Salma Hayek’s in town for Frida. Other notables making the scene include John Cusack, Adam Sandler, Matt Dillon, Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, Kevin Kline, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Saran-don, Juliette Binoche and Pierce Brosnan.

Goddard College graduate and part-time Woodbury resident William Macy is once again on the publicity circuit here for a new project, Welcome to Collinwood, which costars George Clooney. Last year, he stuck around after 9/11 — even offering a discussion on acting in place of the absent Mick Jagger’s press conference — and became one of many temporary expatriates mourning from a distance.

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