Understand that any complaints I make about the Toronto International Film Festival should be considered in a larger context. This is a great film festival. One of the best. The movies are diverse and even the bad ones are generally worth seeing. And it's both rare and remarkable that the festival allows the common cineaste to get cheap tickets and see the same movies as the critics, at roughly the same time. Still, there are little things that nag, both minor and major. Mostly minor.

One of the minor-est but most pervasive is the string of short "attention please" films that run before every feature. There's the TIFF sponsor reel, the "let's thank our volunteers" reel, and the "please silence your cel phones and don't pirate this movie" reel–all of which are more or less redundant, since before every feature a programmer comes out and conveys pretty much the same information. And although it was a little funny the first time I heard the line, "Excuse me, I'm trying to illegally pirate this film, please refrain from using your cel phone," it hasn't been as funny the next 25 times. I've also been getting increasingly annoyed with the "hooray for the volunteers" reel, which has an audience treating a filmmaker on stage with indifference, before going apeshit with applause over the friendly volunteer. Clap for the vols, okay, but maybe the audience in the reel could also clap some for the people who actually made the films.

Or maybe it's just that I've been annoyed by the volunteers this year. This is a star-driven festival in a lot of ways, and I've been as excited as anyone to see Johnny Depp walk onstage before Corpse Bride, or Richard Gere before Bee Season. But the presence of the stars also means that I have to wait longer to get in, and get pushed around by volunteers who block my way or whisk me through side doors, all to keep me out of the way of the talent. I guess they assume I'm going to stop to gawk at Jake Gyllenhaal and thereby inconvenience him. Which I'm sure is a problem. By why can't they believe me when I say I'm just trying to see a damn movie?

Okay, enough grumbling. Because stars are important. If you want proof, watch Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers and Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, both of which feature non-professional casts, and both of which suffer for it, especially when they try to exert some plot. In natural settings, the amateurs mumble inarticulately. When they need to advance the story, they speak plainly and flatly, like characters in The Giant Spider Invasion (only, sad to say, without the giant spiders). And those stories are no great shakes either. In Wassup Rockers, a band of Hispanic punk rockers travel to Beverly Hills and confront a string of L.A. stereotypes, from the fawning gay designer to the grizzled old racist director. In Bubble, a handful of small-town West Virginia factory workers find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery that can best be expressed as, "The guy in the hat killed the other guy in the hat." (Name that movie reference!)

Still, neither are worthless. Larry Clark is too much in love with his real-time shots of skateboarders wiping out (montage, Larry, montage!), but the movie's hardcore punk soundtrack is thrilling, and from a visual perspective, the journey through rich and poor L.A. is never less than striking. And at least Clark approaches his young cast on their own relaxed, just-hangin' level. Soderbergh in Bubble treats vending machines and fast food restaurants like quaint curios, betraying the underlying condescension in his "I can make middle America interesting!" premise. But you know, Bubble is kind of interesting, despite itself. It's short, and crisp, and mostly true in its portait of low-wage workers coasting through monotonous days at a doll factory. Also, that doll factory is pretty cool. Call it a suspicious, but ultimately noble, failure.

Sticking with the okay-but-really-no-big-deal theme, Dave Chappelle's Block Party is an entertaining but almost completely shrug-offable verité doc about the comedian's attempt last year to hold a big hip-hop concert in Bed-Stuy. The performances (by the likes of Mos Def, Kanye West, Jill Scott, Erikah Badu and a reunited Fugees) are often electrifying, and Chappelle's introductions are funny. But if you didn't know ahead of time that Michel Gondry directed the film, you sure wouldn't be able to tell by watching it. There's no special visual snap, and the premise of the movie initially—Dave takes a busload of mixed-race friends from Dayton to Brooklyn—disappears after half-an-hour, and never develops into any kind of substantial comment on race or pop. A disappointment, though again, the music is frequently awesome. (Mad props to Dead Prez and The Roots crew.)

Lastly, I get to break ranks with Scott again and say that he missed the boat on Abel Ferrara's Mary. It's no masterpiece, and any movie that features dialogue exchanges like "You know I'm here for you, right?" "Then why don't we talk anymore?" can charitably be described as "flawed." But there's a hell of a lot of passion in this story of two men who use religion for self-promotion, and who learn the lesson that the disciples learned: that women innately feel what men have to rationalize. There's some bravura filmmaking too, from Ferrara's use of multiple exposures in place of split-screens to his ongoing exploration of light, reflections, and surfaces. Yes, it clunks. (It's hard not to laugh out loud at a crucial point, when Matthew Modine cackles, "There's lines around the block in Philly!" But there's something serious being discussed here, and Ferrara covers more ground than might be acknowledged those who get hung up on the pat plot and functional dialogue.

Coming up: Little Fish, Capote and, following Scott's recommendation, Gabrielle (or, if I can't get in, Duellist). Big morning tomorrow, with Walk The Line and Where The Truth Lies. Posting mid-afternoon if time permits.

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