Toronto Film Festival 2009
by Paul Fischer
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TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL REPORT
What truly defines Toronto is that it represents film from Hollywood’s mainstream, to the far corners of the globe, and as we began our initial foray into screenings this year, one thing is certain: film is nothing if not diverse, culturally and aesthetically.
Returning to the popular Festival is Spanish iconoclast Pedro Almodovar with his intriguing Broken Embraces or Los abrazos rotos. The film tells of one Harry Caine, [Lluís Homar] a blind writer, who reaches this moment in time when he has to heal his wounds from 14 years back. He was then still known by his real name, Mateo Blanco, and directing his last movie. Fourteen years before, he was in a brutal car crash on the island of Lanzarote. In the accident, he not only lost his sight, he also lost Lena [Penelope Cruz], the love of his life. This man uses two names: Harry Caine, a playful pseudonym with which he signs his literary works, stories and scripts, and Mateo Blanco, his real name, with which he lives and signs the film he directs. After the accident, Mateo Blanco reduces himself to his pseudonym, Harry Caine. If he can’t direct films he can only survive with the idea that Mateo Blanco died on Lanzarote with his beloved Lena. In the present day, Harry Caine lives thanks to the scripts he writes and to the help he gets from his faithful former production manager, Judit Garcia [Blanca Portillo], and from Diego [Tamar Novas], her son, his secretary, typist and guide. Since he decided to live and tell stories, Harry is an active, attractive blind man who has developed all his other senses in order to enjoy life, on a basis of irony and self-induced amnesia. He has erased from his biography any trace of his first identity, Mateo Blanco. One night Diego has an accident and Harry takes care of him (his mother, Judit, is out of Madrid and they decide not to tell her anything so as not to alarm her). During the first nights of his convalescence, Diego asks him about the time when he answered to the name of Mateo Blanco, after a moment of astonishment Harry can’t refuse and he tells Diego what happened fourteen years before with the idea of entertaining him, just as a father tells his little child a story so that he’ll fall asleep. The story of Mateo, Lena, Judit and Ernesto Martel is a story of love and passion dominated by fatality, jealously, the abuse of power, treachery and a guilt complex. Almodovar’s films are always defined by their powerful exploration of the human condition, sexuality and the role of women in society. He and Penelope Cruz have forged quite the alliance, and here he has afforded the Oscar winner the chance to grow and open up on screen as never before. On that level, Broken Embraces achieves much in its relationship with its female protagonist, and there is no denying the director’s vision of Cruz as actress and sexual being are incomparable here. Thematically, the film beautifully explores voyeurism in its many complexities and seamlessly shifts between time periods with relative ease. But this latest Almodovar film lacks the depth and precision of his earlier work and at times suffers from its own restlessness. It is an engaging film and of course looks beautiful but it is not as narratively strong and his characters here are less defined than in much of his previous films. Of course, fans of the director will still find much to admire and art house box office should remain strong. As for the luminous Cruz, it is evident that her growth and development as a movie star are as obvious as ever here and for her alone, Embraces is worth a look. [P.F]
The Midnight Madness section at Toronto generally contains some of the Festival’s most interesting selections, but rarely does a Hollywood studio film appear in this section with as much optimism as Jennifer’s Body, which was previewed at this year’s Comic Con. The first film directed by Karyn Kusama since 2005’s Aeon Flux, which suffered from some extraordinary studio interference and savage reviews, the director of Girlfight has bounced back with a film that takes the horror genre to a whole new wonderful level. In a performance that can only be described as spectacular, Megan Fox proves how much more of an actress she is, starring as popular cheerleader Jennifer Check, a high school senior with an insatiable desire for manipulation, flirtation and being the bad girl who loves to cause trouble and teased her male counterparts. Her best friend is bespectacled Needy Lesnicky [a marvellous turn by Mama Mia’s Amanda Seyfried], who is easily drawn to the wilful ways of Jennifer. When Jennifer runs off with a visiting band, she re-emerges somewhat possessed, and this possession turns her from regular, sex-obsessed cheerleader to a killer who specializes in offing her male classmates. Jennifer’s Body could easily have turned into a film that borders on adolescent stupidity, but with a script by Diablo Cody that bristles with wit and sharp characters, and director Kusama at the helm, the result is a fresh, wonderfully audacious, incredibly sexy and quite brilliantly funny film that succeeds on more levels than meets the eye. Cody completely subverts a common genre and gives it a distinctly female perspective that drives the narrative throughout while Kusama gives the film her own original point of view, resulting in a work that is both visually imaginative as well as smart and funny. One could never associate the genre with strong acting, and you’ll hear no shrieks of histrionic screaming in this movie. Both women are extraordinary in this film, and Seyfried is an actress whose talent leaps off the screen in one of the most exquisite performances by a young actress seen this year. Without giving anything away, she undergoes quite the metamorphism and pulls it off with a genuine and sincere credibility. She has one emotional moment in the film that is simply stunning. Megan Fox is no slouch either, clearly having fun devouring this role with all the sublime relish at her disposal. But the combination of a gifted writer and a director absent too long, make Jennifer’s Body sublime, fun, exhilarating entertainment that will make distributor Fox a fortune at the box office, which this terrific film so richly deserves. [P.F]
Earlier this year at Sundance, Sony Pictures Classics acquired Audience Award winning An Education after an intense bidding war and was screened at Toronto as part of the Festival’s Special Presentation series.
The movie is set in 1961 and attractive, bright 16-year-old schoolgirl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is poised on the brink of womanhood, Stifled by the tedium
Using an amazing mixture of flattery and fibbery, David arranges to take Jenny on a weekend jaunts to Oxford and Paris. On her return to Twickenham, Jenny’s school friends are thrilled with her newfound sophistication but her headmistress (Emma Thompson) is scandalized and her English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) is deeply disappointed that her prize pupil seems determined to throw away her gifts and chances of higher education. Just as the family’s long-held dream of getting their brilliant daughter into Oxford seems within reach, Jenny is tempted by another kind of life.
An Education is an unforgettable, luscious and moving coming-of-age story that is more rich and layered than what one conceives of when they hear the quaint term “coming of age”. Carey Mulligan all but channels Hepburn’s Holly Golightly and brings the character of Jenny to life on screen in a way that many will be likely talking about throughout the enduring awards season. Nick Hornby’s adaption of the autobiographical memoir of the same name written by British journalist Lynn Barber, dazzles and perfectly captures the excitement of being on what Carey feels must be the precipice of an accelerated adulthood, something everyone who has been a teenager can certainly relate to. Director Lone Scherfig has a keen understanding of a society on the brink of change and a young woman in the fog of first love, which is at odds with everyone’s expectations of her. [M.A]
There are definitely two sides to the iconoclastic filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh: the individualist who makes films that are distinctly personal, and there is the mainstream director who is happy helming the likes of the Oceans franchise. His latest film, The Informant, distinctly falls into the latter category and one is happy to see him there, because as mainstream as it is, the film is still full of that Soderbergh magic that results in a film that both lots of fun yet intelligent and classy all the way. In one of his most deft and assured performances in a while, Matt Damon stars in the slightly true story of Mark Whitacre, an Ivy League Ph.D. who was a rising star at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s. The bipolar hero wound up blowing the whistle on the company’s price fixing tactics and became the highest-ranked executive to ever turn whistleblower in US history. Whitacre secretly gathered hundreds of hours of video and audio tapes over several years to present to the FBI which became one of the largest price fixing cases in history. The film is a dark comedy, beautifully directed by Soderbergh and featuring a sharp and witty script by Scott Z. Burns from the best-selling Kurt Eichenwald book. Brisk and deliciously funny, the film gives Damon a chance to show of a dry sense of humour, looking the part of the ill-at-ease executive, whose interactions with the FBI are priceless. Given recent economic history, The Informant arrives at an appropriate time in our history as corporate greed has become the norm, and such is the theme of a film that is fascinating as it is smart and entertaining. In many ways, it is an unusual film to come out of a major studio, because as funny as it is, it is a film that deals with some major issues. [P.F]
TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL REPORT
New Zealand director Jane Campion has divided audiences and critics for years and one can only imagine that her latest work, Bright Star will have the same effect. The film is set in London 1818 and a secret love affair begins between 23 year-old English poet, John Keats (Ben Whishaw), and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), an out-spoken student of high fashion. This unlikely pair begin at odds, he thinking her a stylish minx, while she was unimpressed not only by his poetry but also by literature in general.
However, when Fanny heard that Keats was nursing his seriously ill younger brother, her efforts to help touched Keats and when she asked him to teach her about poetry he agreed. The poetry soon became a romantic remedy that worked not only to sort their differences, but also to fuel an impassioned love affair.
When Fanny’s alarmed mother and Keats’ best friend finally awoke to their attachment, the relationship hand an unstoppable momentum. Intensely and helplessly absorbed in each other, the young lovers were swept deeply into powerful new sensations, “I have the feeling as if we’re dissolving,” Keats wrote to her. Together they rode a wave of romantic obsession that only deepened as their troubles mounted.
On a purely cinematic level, Campion’s eye for detail is striking, both in the physical detail of the period and in the film’s exploration of British class. The film is strikingly elegant and lush but the film lacks a narrative rhythm. The pacing is uneven and plodding at times, and only the patient of audience will be compelled by the film’s sheer stagnancy. One of the problems is that Keats and Fanny are terribly underplayed by their actors, resulting in performances that fail to connect on any real emotional level. This is symptomatic of Campion’s work defined by its lush and beautiful imagery often at the expense of emotional resonance. In Bright Star, this is further heightened by the lacklustre work of the central performances that do little justice to their characters emotional growth. Both hold back to such an extent, that contemporary audiences would soon detach from what they go through. Abby Cornish is certainly more effective, looks gorgeous and the camera loves her, but she lacks a certain punch and is never fully convincing, less so than Barnes.
It is hard to know who will see Bright Star, a period film that is humourless and dour, though elegant and wistful. The film is likely to succeed in Britain and Australia, but will find it tough to connect to Americans who have little interest in either British 19th century social mores, or Keats and his doomed love life. But Jane Campion makes films for herself rather than take on commercial considerations, and perhaps that’s what makes her a divisive but fascinating artist.[P.F]
Beautiful Kate was one of Australia’s most successful films of late despite a dark and confronting subject matter. In the performance of his career, Ben Mendelsohn stars as a 40 year old writer, Ned Kendall, who is asked to return to the family home in outback Australia by his sister Sally [Rachel Griffiths], to say goodbye to his father [Bryan Brown], who is dying. While at home, Ned starts having memories of his beautiful twin sister and himself when they were children. These memories awaken long-buried secrets from the family’s past. Based on the novel by Newton Thornburg, Rachel Ward’s feature directorial debut is a staggering achievement, a film of extraordinary depth and clarity, a rich multi-textured layer of profoundly delineated characters brought to cinematic life against the harsh, brown hues of a rugged and uncompromising terrain. Ward manages to convey the film’s themes of regret and redemption so beautifully in her casting. Mendelsohn is sublime, delivering a powerful and sensitive performance, his best ih a decade, but it’s Bryan Brown who is a revelation here, raw asnhd magnificent as the once tough and distant father desperately trying to connect with a son and a past he never understood. He is remarkable and it is one of rthose performances, emotionally rich and real, that remains long in the mind of the viewer for hours afterwards. Newcomer Sophie Lowe is a sensational find as the sexually confused titular character.
The rich cinematography of Andrew Commis visually enhance Ward’s narrative fluidity. With strong reviews, one hopes that U.S distribution will beckon and the right team can propel it to awards glory. Beautiful Kate is a hauntingly exquisite work of beauty and emotive resonance, a triumph for its talented director.[P.F]
A much anticipated Special Presentation at this year’s festival from Jason Reitman, the Oscar® nominated director of “Juno,” is dramatic comedy, “Up in the Air” starring Oscar winner George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing expert whose cherished life on the road is threatened just as he is on the cusp of reaching ten million frequent flyer miles and after he’s met the frequent-traveler woman of his dreams.
This extremely witty, sharp and poignant dramatic comedy is more about loyalty and connections than just the kind made from mileage points. It’s an adept exploration of our changing culture which has embraced technology and the speed and conveniences these advances have brought, but may have done so at a cost, a lost connection to what is real.
Clooney’s character has the typical confidence and swagger we have grown accustomed to from his roles, but what’s so surprisingly sweet is the emptiness and vulnerability we witness in addition to his personal growth as Ryan realizes there is much more to life than hitting the 10 million mile mark.
Exploring themes like these could have resulted in a schmaltzy film, but with the adaption of the Walter Kirn novel in the very capable hands of writers Reitman and Sheldon Turner, the script is sharp, clever, and stirring. Reitman’s direction captures the tenor of America’s current social and economic turmoil, infusing it with fun and sex appeal. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in supporting performances prove they can go toe-to-toe with Clooney. In all, a beautifully entertaining yet intelligent work from one of Hollywood’s most unique young directors. [MA]
Director Berman, who met Hefner after he saw her film about musician Bix Beiderbecke, digs deeply into this multi-faceted icon with in-depth interviews with Hefner himself and with as many supporters as detractors, including Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Pat Boone, George Lucas, Mike Wallace, and lesser known people who worked with Hefner to develop Playboy and the Playboy brand into the international conglomerate it is today.
While Berman’s access was unfettered, it felt that (even at over two hours), the film doesn’t delve deeply enough into any one area and lacks soul. Maybe it’s because Hefner as a subject is so dense, that any filmmaker would be hard pressed to create a singular vision of this man.
TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL REPORT
Australia is represented at this year’s Festival more than in previous years and if Ana Kokkinos’ Blessed is anything to go by, the Australian film industry is alive and well and brimming with originality. Based on a play called Who’s Afraid of the Working Class by Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius, and Christos Tsiolkas, Blessed takes place during the course of one day and night, during which seven children find themselves on difficult urban journeys in Melbourne. There’s Katrina (Sophie Lowe) and Trisha (Anastasia Baboussouras) street-smart girls, who ditch school and are caught shoplifting. Having recently fled his mother’s cloying love, Roo (Eamon Farren) is living on the street, but when he finds himself in a porn film he realises he’s not so tough and just wants to go home. Unfairly accused of stealing his mother’s money, angry Daniel (Harrison Gilbertson) attempts a real theft - with unexpected results. Brother and sister, Orton (Reef Ireland) and Stacey (Eva Lazzaro), must flee the mother they love in order to survive. And James (Wayne Blair) is the most lost of all; a young Aboriginal man with no place in the white or the black world. The second half of the film shifts to examine their plight from the perspectives of the mothers in their lives. There is the fertile Rhonda [Frances O’Connor] seemingly trapped in a relationship and trying to connect with the children that have deserted her. Deborra-Lee Furness is Tanya, the nurse whose marriage crumbles amidst urban, working-class realities, who finds solace in a dying patient. Then there’s the fragile Bianca [Miranda Otto] always on the search of elusive lady luck, which she finds, unexpectedly, and then squanders. Few films of recent memory have delivered the kind of emotional punch than this extraordinary film. Ana Kokinos has crafted a work that is richly layered and taken this series of plays and masterfully turned them into a seamless film that explores the realities of working-class life and how both mothers and children are affected by actions in a very different way. Life is so fragile, the film tells us, and children and life are a blessing. The playwrights worked on the screenplay and the film is hauntingly cinematic, beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Geoff Burton whose camerawork captures the often dark underbelly of the Australian urban landscape, enhanced by the dulcet rhythmic tones of Cezary Skubiszewski’s music.
But the performances of the women are what make Blessed all that more satisfying. Last seen on screen in the unfortunate TV series Cashmere Mafia [along with co-star Otto], Frances O’Connor is magnificent as Rhonda. It’s a tough role, and she navigates through her emotional rollercoaster ride with superb clarity. There is one moment in the film during which O’Connor gives a performance of stunning emotional power. She is superb here. Rarely gracing the screen these days with substantial roles, Deborra-Lee Furness is truly a revelation as Tanya, delivering a haunting, beautifully realized and delicately nuanced performance, easily one of her finest moments on screen in an over a decade. As the camera closes in on her, we see her pain through every pore. And Otto is breathtakingly luminous as Bianca. Blessed is by no means an easy film, but it is an emotive, hauntingly beautiful masterpiece that remains unforgettable in its honesty and cinematic elegance. [PF]
Australian director John Hillcoat has often been drawn to films that explore the barrenness of society, both physically and emotionally, and his latest, The Road, from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, defines those themes with a distinct and fascinating clarity. The film is the epic post-apocalyptic tale of a journey taken by a father [Viggo Mortensen] and his young son [Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee] across a barren landscape that was blasted by an unnamed cataclysm that destroyed civilization and most life on earth. For some curious reason, the post-Apocalypse is a favourite theme among filmmakers this year, and audiences will be exposed to quite a flurry of such films all treating the subject with varying degrees of success. The Road is a tough, dark and sombre look at a world so utterly destroyed and the need to survive. There are no names given to any of the characters, allowing one to both disconnect from its principals until its final, tour-de-force denouement. The Road is a film that brutally explores the nihilism of a lost society and does so with both grace and power. Hillcoat is a visual master as he so beautifully captures the expansiveness of this dead world, with dark and ferocious imagery. One can literally feel this end of the world crumble before us, with the dying foliage immersed in a world of desperate survivors as cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe lights the film in such a way that its dark and dingy look is visually real, as is the haunting score of Nick Cave. The Road is not an action film, but one that deals with a father-son relationship and director Hillcoat deliberately paces his film carefully, punctuating quite moments with outbursts of violence and suspense. This is by no means a film of escapist fantasy, but like its source material, is a dark and savage work, with sparse dialogue and moments that are both pessimistic but ultimately present us with a sense of hope. There are essentially two actors in the film and both are sensational. Mortensen has grown in leaps and bounds over the years and this may be his finest hour. Subtle, nuanced and saying little with so much, Mortensen gives a beautiful and powerful performance. Young Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee is a major find. Last seen in his debut film Romulus my Father, there is no hint of his Australian background and he is simply superb. In a brief role and shown in flashback, Charlize Theron is fine as the wife who deserts her family. The Road is a stunning achievement, uncompromising, visually extraordinary and emotionally challenging, representing a new and exciting chapter in the career of a fine filmmaker who knows how to explore the savagery of a landscape. This is quite a film and one has hopes for box office success, despite its sometimes-difficult subject matter. [P.F]
One of the Festival’s most anticipated entrants would have to be Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Panassus, Gilliam’s most assured and complex work in years. The central character, Dr Panassus, played to perfection by Christopher Plummer, has an extraordinary gift of inspiring the imaginations of others. Helped by his traveling theatre troupe, including his sarcastic and cynical sidekick Percy and versatile young player Anton, Parnassus offers audience members the chance to transcend mundane reality by passing through a magical mirror into a fantastic universe of limitless imagination. However, Parnassus’ magic comes at a price. For centuries he’s been gambling with the devil, Mr. Nick [a wonderful Tom Waits] who is coming to collect his prize — Parnassus’ precious daughter, Valentina on her upcoming 16th birthday. Oblivious to her rapidly approaching fate, Valentina falls for Tony, a charming outsider with motives of his own. In order to save his daughter and redeem himself, Parnassus makes one final bet with Mr. Nick, which sends Tony and Valentina and the entire theatre troupe on a ride of twists and turns, in and out of London and the Imaginarium’s spectacular landscape.
Parnassus can only be described ass pure Gilliam, a visual tour-de-force of kinetic energy that explores many themes that have dominated the work of this iconoclastic visionary for decades, themes of regret, age, longing and of course fantasy. Gilliam’s magic mirror transports us into a world of shimmering and dazzling artifice, eye-popping color and our deepest psyches. As an artist, Gilliam strips away the rules of cohesive narrative, replacing structure with indelibly rich characters amidst a dazzling backdrop. Production designer Anastasia Masaro has done a magnificent job in contrasting the dour world of contemporary London in which the thousand year old Parnassus has inhabited with the vivid fantasy world that represents the purity of humanity. Beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Nicola Pecorini and sharply edited, the film is hypnotic. Of course, Gilliam has also elicited such wonderful performances not only by a magnificent Plummer but of course the late Heath Ledger, who proves how incredibly diverse and multi faceted he was. This was the perfect swansong, and his replacements, as it were, segue effortlessly and beautifully, in particularly Depp and Farrell who do justice to bother Ledger and the material, imbuing it with much wit and style.
Imaginarium seems the perfect Gilliam film at this time in his life, a rich and profound cinematic tapestry that is original, breathtaking and exhilarating. [P.F]
Recipient of the 2009 Sundance Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic, the Audience Award: (U.S. Dramatic), and A Special Jury Prize for Acting, PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE lands at the Toronto Film Festival as one the Gala Presentations program.
Set in Harlem in 1987, it is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), a sixteen-year-old African-American girl born into a life no one would want. She’s pregnant for the second time by her absent father; at home, she must wait hand and foot on her mother (Mo’Nique), a poisonously angry woman who abuses her emotionally and physically. School is a place of chaos, and Precious has reached the ninth grade with good marks and an awful secret: she can neither read nor write.
Precious may sometimes be down, but she is never out. Beneath her impassive expression is a watchful, curious young woman with an unclear but unshakeable sense that something more exists for her. Threatened with expulsion, Precious is offered the chance to transfer to an alternative school. Precious doesn’t know the meaning of “alternative,” but her instincts tell her this is the chance she has been waiting for. In the literacy workshop taught by the patient yet firm Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), Precious begins a journey that will lead her from darkness, pain and powerlessness to light, love and self-determination.
The joy in Precious is when she lets us into her rich fantasy life, and while the hardship of this story is prominent, dramatic, genuine, and painful to witness, one can’t close ones eyes to it, in hopes of something better for our protagonist. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe gives an amazingly affecting performance with director Lee Daniels encouraging her to shine in moments of hope and resigned stoicism. As painful and seemly unchangeable circumstances surround her, Sidibe is quiet revelation. Mo’Nique’s portrayal of Precious’s abusive and violent mother is like the shock of a hot a slap in the face, showing us a side to the usually bubbly comedienne, unseen until now. Daniels direction is relentless in showing us the grimy, painful circumstances of Precious’s world. There is nothing forgettable about this raw, vibrant and resoundingly hopeful film; it will be vividly etched in your memory for hours after you leave the theater, if not days and years. [M.A]
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is having its North American Premiere at this year’s festival. This wildly entertaining documentary recently won the Audience Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival and won Best Feature Film (under 1 million dollar budget) at the Qantas New Zealand Film and TV Awards 2009.
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is the first time that the irrepressible Kiwi entertainment double act, Jools and Lynda Topp’s extraordinary personal story has been told. The film offers a revealing look into the lives of the World’s only comedic, country singing, dancing, and yodeling lesbian twin sisters. Described by musician Billy Bragg as an “anarchist variety act,” Jools and Lynda came of age performing on the streets of Auckland during the heady days of the political protest marches in the early 80s, and quickly joined the forefront of progressive social change campaigning for a Nuclear-Free New Zealand, Maori Land Rights, a halt to the1981 Springbok Tour, and Homosexual Law.
Their amazing story is hilariously and tenderly revealed through requisite interviews with the twins themselves, performance, and personal archival footage, home movies, in addition to interviews with family members, New Zealand political figures, fellow musicians, and comedians. Director Leanne Pooley creates something extremely unique by featuring special interviews with some of the Topp’s infamous comedy alter-egos, which are uproarious even if you aren’t familiar with some of the Twins most popular creations. Pooley’s access to the twins appears completely unfettered allowing us to share in the unique talents of these groundbreaking entertainers as their careers evolved from street performers to wildly popular concert musicians.
While so many festival films tend to deal with somber subject matters, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is virtually the antithesis. Part concert film, part documentary, part comedy and all heart, the Topp Twins film is pure fun, with as much poignancy and courage as the films two subjects. [M.A]
TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL REPORT
What would Toronto be like without a Coen Brothers movie to make things interesting, and along comes their most original and challenging film in quite some time: A Serious Man. Possibly the filmmakers’ most personal film to date, it may be the toughest sell commercially, but when you win an Oscar, then you can afford to break the rules. The film begins in 19th century Poland and involves a tale about a husband, wife and and an old man who comes to dinner who is supposedly dead. Is he that ancient evil spirit known as Dibbuk? A symbol of bad luck exemplifies the main part of the film as iit jumps to 1967. The film follows misadventurous plights of an ordinary mans search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik,[ Michael Stuhlbarg\ a physics professor at a quiet midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous colleagues, Sy Ableman, [pa very dry Fred Melamed] who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur [Richard ind] is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job. While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis asd his world comes crashing around him.
On the one hand, this dark and complex fable is a very Jewish tale about God, or the lack thereof, temptation and the quest for spiritual growth. A Serious Man is a film peppered with irony and laced with a deliciously menacing sense of humor. Commercially, the film may have its problems. After all, a film that explores Jewish culture and vernacular with authoritative seriousness, featuring a plethora of relatively unknown actors with not a movie star among them, may not be a hit in Iowa. But if one strips away the Jewish elements of the film, what one has is a story of a man grappling with life letting him down. Thematically, Serious Man, as witty as it is, is deeply human, as the Coens explore the broad spectrum of human behavior. The film is beautifully shot by the wonderful Roger Deakins and attention to period detail and use of color to evoke the late 60s is gorgeous. All performances are sublime, especially lead actor Michael Stuhlbarg who captures the essence of pathetic vulnerability.
A Serious Man is an original, ferociously comic masterpiece that simmers with wit and tragedy. It is not necessarily mainstream, but that is what makes A Serious Man shine.[PF]
Unsettled and yet self-interested, Sobran agrees without being able to answer his own questions about who or what Xas actually is. The vines, however, are very real, and they grow and thrive. Soon Sobran encounters the next influence in his life, the proud, educated and vulnerable Baroness Aurora de Valday (Vera Farmiga). Before long, he is as deeply entangled in Aurora’s emotional complexities as he is in her vineyard, leading to both spiritual and physical crises for everyone. Though a New Zealand film, this lush, erotic and passionate film is more European with its frank exploration of sexuality and eroticism, yet the film’s lyrical beauty and intelligence makes it something quite unexpected. A film about humanity and spirituality, Caro directs this film with an exquisite sense of detail. Gorgeous in all facets of visual detail, Vintner’s Luck is also a fascinating romantic melodrama, and at its core, comprises a cast that is spot on. Jérémie Renier is the perfect peasant who transforms into a self-educated winemaker. It’s a beautiful, complex and richly layered performance. The women in huis life are spectacularly good, from the wonderful all grown up Castle Hughes, who embodies the earthy sexuality of her character and the luminous Vera Farmiga, who is clearly a versatile and complex actress and is magnificent, beautiful and passionate as the Baroness.
The Vintner’s Luck is a spellbinding, sexy and hypnotic tale, thematically dense and s original in its tale of God, angels and sexuality. It’s quite as movie that deserves international distribution. [PF]
Ricky Gervais makes his directorial debut with The Invention of Lying, a comedy part of the Special Presentation program at this year’s festival.
Imagine living in a world where only the truth exists and no one is a skeptic. Imagine the nightmare of a first date (where a date tells you they aren’t sexually attracted to you as soon as they open the door), the workplace (where your secretary tells you she’s hated every moment she’s worked for you), or a visit with your mother (where she agrees with your self-assessment of being a loser) – this is a world where no feelings are spared, not to be malicious, but because the truth is all one knows.
This is Mark Bellison’s (Gervais) world. In this alternate reality, lies do not exist, movies aren’t ever fictional, Coke promotes their product as brown sugar water that will make you fat, Bellison’s boss tells him he’s too nervous to fire him thus putting off for days. The concept of a lie doesn’t even exist until down-on-his luck Bellison realizes the ability to simply not tell the truth and discovers that dishonesty has its rewards. As he discovers the ease in which to fib, things all begin to fall into this place for this self-described loser; his dream girl, Jennifer (Jennifer Garner), suddenly seems within reach, his career star is back on the rise, and before too long, he’s even famous for lies he tells his mother about
While this film is meant to be funny (and it is), it’s more of an astute commentary on where the truth fits into our world and lives. This black comedy works because we relate to where such honesty and dishonesty fit even though we crave honesty from the people that surround us; we often can’t handle it when we are given what we’ve asked for. We lie sometimes to protect and fool ourselves, but mostly to guard the feelings of others. In the alternative reality of The Invention of Lying, humans never have to deal with the messiness of untruths; people mean what they say all of the time and because they’ve never known any other way, they aren’t really hurt by nasty remarks because they are not insults, but just statements of fact. This entertaining and thought provoking movie ultimately urges the viewer to consider how important the truth is and where lies fit in to our lives. Gervais does a proficient job for a first time director and while there are some parts of the story (co-written by Gervais with Matthew Robinson), that cause the viewer to question the consistency of the premise; it is ultimately a funny and enjoyable film. [MA]
Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) is a cynical, sex-obsessed, loveable 16 year-old loser with mature tastes in music, film and women. While on vacation to the ‘Restless Axels’ trailer park with his dysfunctional and desperately middle-aged mother (Jean Smart) and truck-driving unlawful boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis), he meets the girl of his dreams, the intelligent, sophisticated and sexually forward Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) and Nick falls deeply in love. But geography (theirs), ex-lovers (hers) and meddling parents (theirs) threaten the budding romance. In order to cope and bolster his courage, Nick creates a rebellious alter-ego, François, who Nick thinks will rescue him from himself, but in reality gets Nick into disaster after disaster in his quest for Sheeni’s attention.
Youth in Revolt is not your average teenage sex comedy/coming of age story. This unsentimental, cynical, sex farce is decidedly unique, yet somewhat familiar. It deals with relatable themes such as the loneliness of adolescence, teenage rebellion, sexual obsession and the experience of growing up in a chaotic world in an extremely distinctive manner. Cera, no stranger to the comedic value of embarrassment and relative newcomer Doubleday are credible in the outrageous predicaments the story finds them in. The supporting cast including Smart, Galifianakis, Justin Long, Fred Willard, and Steve Buscemi embody their eccentric characters, contributing to the uproarious experience of the film. Director Miguel Arteta has found a perfect off kilter take to the coming of age genre by mixing various animation techniques that show how Nick might imagine the things he’s talking about traditional live action where you see things from the narrators’ point-of-view. Youth in Revolt is hilarious, subversive and exceptionally original. [MA]
TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL REPORT PART 5
Playwright Steven Poliakoff is a master of smart witty material and his films encompass a broad spectrum, but nothing compares to Glorious 39 enjoying its world premiere at Toronto. This hypnotic thriller is set between present-day London and the idyllic British countryside in the time before the beginning of the Second World War. At a time of uncertainty and high tension, the story revolves around the formidable Keyes family, who are keen to uphold and preserve their very traditional way of life. The eldest sibling Anne is a budding young actress who is in love with Foreign Office official Lawrence, but her seemingly perfect life begins to dramatically unravel when she stumbles across secret recordings of the anti-appeasement movement. While trying to discover the origin of these recordings, dark secrets are revealed which lead to the death of a great friend. As war breaks out Anne discovers the truth and flees to London to try to confirm her suspicions, but she is caught and imprisoned and only then does she discover some ugly truths.
The adjective ‘Hitchcockian’ is often bandied about but Glorious 39 is a stunning, classic thriller which could easily have come from that venerable Master of Suspense. The joy of this masterful film, is the way in which writer/director Poliakoff, creates a mood of superficial tranquillity, and then slowly, carefully, we realize that nobody is whop they appear to be and his tone shifts in sinister degrees. Watching this film is like witnessing a complex game of chess, and it builds to a riveting denouement. It is just as fascinating to see what these actors do, playing symbols of British aristocracy, yet living a facade of sorts. Bill Nighy goes from strength to strength as an actor, and here, he plays a character audiences think they have seen before, but his subtle, finely tuned and flawlessly realised performance is something meticulous and quite breathtakingly brilliant. In direct contrast is the magnificent Romola Garai who plays the central character of Anne. Alluring, beautiful, fragile, intense and quite dazzling in her emotive range, Garai is a revelation and a major star in the making. Her final moments on screen are hypnotic. The always luminous Julie Christie is terrific as the mysterious Aunt Elizabeth and the wonderful Jeremy Northam is a sinister Balcombe.
Visually the film is as glorious as its title, with cinematographer Danny Cohen’s beautiful lighting and the music of Adrian Johnston is evocative. Poliakoff’s writing is consistently sharp, and he directs with assuredness and fluidity, keeping the tension bubbling at a crisp pace, only allowing it to come to the surface intermittently but with appropriate ferocity. Glorious 39 in part deals with family, trust and values, as well as about the dangers of class. It is as film about the veneer of society, and the masks we wear, and in all, is a sublime, elegantly and classically structured thriller by a fine, masterful filmmaker. One can truly hope that a clever distributor will pick the film up because clever and intoxicating thrillers such as this are a rarity, and Glorious 39 is a perfect cinematic gem. [PF]
Canadian Director Ruba Nadda, brings her latest film, Cairo Time, to the festival this year as part of the Special Presentations program
The film follows Juliette, a successful American magazine editor with grown children who arrives in Cairo to meet her husband, Mark, a UN refugee camp worker only to be told he is unavoidably delayed in Gaza. Mark sends his devoted and long-time friend, Tareq, (Alexander Siddig), a retired Egyptian police officer; to pick her up and an undeniable mutual attraction occurs for both. Juliette leans on Tareq as she discovers the streets of Cairo are not safe for single women who don’t cover their heads. Tareq, who is single, is still suffering the pain of a prior relationship ending. Is it love or an intense friendship born from necessity and proximity? As they attempt to resist each other, the attraction grows. The brief love affair between Juliette and Tareq catches them both completely off guard, especially considering the intense loyalty they both feel for Mark.
After seeing this film, you understand what the makers intend to do with including the word “time” in the title. It not just refers to the time and distance to Cairo, which is so beautifully presented, but the opportunities missed and realized because of languid amounts of time or too little of it. Juliette’s husband is continually delayed for his arrival in Cairo, propelling her and Tareq to develop a stronger and more passionate relationship. Class and gender differences in Egypt are also deftly explored here, Juliette witnessing the vast differences in the experience of the uneducated girls who are poor and work hardest, while Tareq, an educated male who after retiring from the police force casually owns a coffee shop that he can close on a moment’s notice if he doesn’t feel like being there. The girls who weave rugs for pennies, do not own their own time – an idea Juliette bristles under and Tareq accepts with no shame. As their romance grows, we realize this is more than a typical ‘bored housewife has a vacation fling’ for Clarkson’s character. Clarkson is excellent this role and Siddig shines and more than holds his own against the more experienced Clarkson. The chemistry between them is undeniable. While the plot is thin and it occasionally feels like a promotional film for Egyptian tourism, it is an enjoyable film that avoids obvious clichés. [MA]
Based on the successful Australian best seller, iconic Australian director Bruce Beresford brings Mao’s Last Dancer to the big screen and to Toronto before it opens in Australia on October 1.
From a desperately poor village in northeast China, at age eleven, Li Cunxin was chosen by Madame Mao’s cultural delegates to be taken from his rural home and brought to Beijing, where he would study ballet. In 1979, the young dancer arrived in Texas as part of a cultural exchange, only to fall in love with America-and with an American woman. Two years later, he defected to the United States, where he quickly became known as one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. This is his story, told in his own voice.
Mao’s Last Dancer begins as clunky drama (verging on melodrama) that relies too heavily on flashbacks to rural poverty and rigorous dance training in Communist China. When Li arrives in America, the film drags as it stereotypes fish-out-of-water situations for humor. Towards the final hour of the film, the story finds its rhythm by following a more chronological path, and the dramatic moments leading up to Li’s defection are more engrossing. Beresford’s handles the dance sequences beautifully, presenting them to the audience in full-frame, as if we were sitting in the theater seeing them live. Lead actor Chi Cao gives a solid acting performance and marvelous dance performances opening the eyes of even a non-dance fan up to the undeniable beauty and fluidity to the form. Overall, the film is inconsistent but should appeal to vastly ignored dance fans and older audiences in Australia where Li Cunxin lives and speaks publicly. [MA]
Another Australian film at Toronto is perhaps one of the most powerful and emotional films of the year, Balibo, from accomplished director Robert Connolly, who made the award-winning classic The Boys and whose latest work shows remarkable growth and maturity. The film begins in November 1975, four weeks after five Australian journalists are reported missing, and veteran foreign correspondent Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) is approached by twenty-five year old José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) who attempts to recruit him to run the East Timor News Agency. Roger East agrees but only if he is first given complete access to the nation to find out the fate of Channel Seven’s Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley) and Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter), and from Channel Nine, Brian Peters (Thomas Wright) and Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips). Four weeks earlier, the journalists had made their way to Balibo determined to film the imminent Indonesian invasion. On the morning of October 16 all five men are executed in cold blood by the invading Indonesian troops, after clearly identifying themselves as Australian journalists. Their bodies are burnt. East is also captured and killed.
The Australian film industry continues to make astonishing, accomplished and compelling films, and Balibo is certainly one such film as it explores a time in which governments were happy to stand aside while small countries were invaded and the Western media was quashed. This undeniably tragic story has cinematically unfolded with masterful power by a talented director and cast, and while many of us may know the outcome on a narrative or historical level, director Connolly magnificently is able to continually sustain and create tension from moments of pure tranquility. As these events return with a new re-examination of the Balibo 5 and East’s own powerful story, thematically, Balibo is relevant beyond the pales of history, as other conflicts over the years have also been aided and abetted by western governments, making Balibo so much more relevant internationally than it appears at first glance. At the heart of the film is one of the most remarkable performances of the year in Anthony LaPaglia, the emotional centre of this complex piece. As the middle-aged and initially weary journalist who becomes caught up in the politics of East Timor, LaPaglia delivers what could be the performance of his career, powerful, emotive and richly layered.. The actor has the extraordinary ability to communicate emotional depth with facial gestures, eyes and body language. He is ferocious and raw in this film and deserves every award imaginable.
Connolly shot the film on location in East Timor where these events occurred giving us the added ability to immerse ourselves in this tragic tale. Compelling, visceral and emotive, Balibo is a film that restores one’s faith in the power of cinema. This is an astonishing achievement worthy of international distribution.
TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL REPORT Part 6
The Boys Are Back, a Special Presentation at this year’s festival, marks Director Scott Hicks return to film making in his home, his beloved South Australia.
Joe Warr, is a witty, successful sportswriter (CLIVE OWEN) who, in the wake of his wife’s tragic death, finds himself in a sudden, terrifying state of single parenthood. With chaotic emotions swirling just below the surface, Warr throws himself into the only child-rearing philosophy he thinks has a shot at bringing joy back into their lives: “just say yes.” Raising two boys – a curious six year-old (NICHOLAS MCANULTY) and a rebel teen (GEORGE MACKAY) from a previous marriage — in a household devoid of feminine influence, and with an unabashed lack of rules, life becomes exuberant, instinctual, reckless … and on the constant verge of disaster. United by unspoken love, conflicted by fierce feelings and in search of a road forward, the three multi-generational boys of the Warr household, father and sons alike, must each find their own way, however tenuous, to grow up. Their story is not just about the transforming power of a family crisis — but the unavoidable grace of everyday life and love that gets them through.
Themes of loss, the gender divide and joy of parenting are strong in the skilfully drawn script adapted by Allan Cubitt of Simon Carr’s memoirs. Owens’ performance is exceptional, showing us a character that is the most vulnerable of his career. Hicks’ natural direction beautifully captures not only the subtle moments of pain and pleasure in the Warr’s family life, but the stunning colours and textures of the South Australian landscape. It is, in a small way, a love letter to the region. The Boys Are Back has undeniable beauty in its quiet moments and in its scenes of vast panoramas. The rich and gorgeous score of piano and guitar music by Hal Lindes pulls the viewer immediately into the pitch-perfect tone of the film, which is compassionate without being cloying or overly sentimental. [M.A]
Tim Blake Nelson’s first directorial debut since The Grey Zone is the delightfully dark comedy Leaves of Grass, a film that shows a remarkably cinematic maturity and growth. Delivering a richly varied performance is Edward Norton stars as two identical twins, Bill and Brady Kincaid in this darkly comic tale. Bill is an Ivy League classics professor who prides himself on having shed both his southern accent and his southern working-class family. An inspiration to his students, he adopts vital philosophical thought while constructing a deliberate life of self-control. Over a thousand miles away, the equally brilliant and amiable Brady has chosen a life of impulsivness and unpredictability – a life teetering on the brink of danger and crime.
Leaves of Grass is first and foremost a brilliantly observant and wry script by Blake Nelson, based in part on his own Oklahoma upbringing. Movies of course begin with the script and usually end the same way, but Blake Nelson has structured a wry, well observed script containing a collage of richly defined characters, but tonally, the script strikes the perfect balance between absurdist black humour and emotional truth. It is a delicate balancing act but one that Blake Nelson pulls off and so with pure eloquence. It is as fortunate that he persuaded the always Brilliant Edward Norton to play this pair of disparate brothers and the film could have fallen down had the wrong kind of actor been allowed to take these two characters and make them grounded, and funny as hell, and Norton is just extraordinary as either the drug dealing Okie who wants nothing more than to marry his pregnant girlfriend and connect with the twin brother who would rather forget his roots and focus on his more closed up world of academia. Norton manages to be frenetically hilarious and emotionally sensitive playing these two extreme characters, and immerses himself so totally into both, that one soon forgets that the same actor is playing both characters. Blake Nelson also appears as the often crazy sidekick of Brady and is fun to watch, and beautiful Keri Russell is so perfect as the poetic local who changes Bill’s life. Blake Nelson’s work as a director has matured over the years and Leaves of Grass is clearly a work of complex moral issues and a rich tapestry of sharp humour and wonderfully drawn characters. The film is gorgeous to look at, beautifully cinematic as it evokes a part of the country that is full of geographic contradictions. A dazzling entertaining work that explores family and relationships amidst all its contradictions, the film is very commercial and should prove box office gold if picked up by the right studio, such as a Searchlight or Sony Classics. With a star-making comedic tour-de-force performance by Norton at its core, and this wonderfully funny, lyrical script, Leaves of Grass is an unexpected, fresh and deeply human comedy the likes of which are rarely seen. [P.F]
Atom Egoyan is often regarded as a director of cerebral, intellectual and complex works, tending more often than not to work very distinctly on the periphery of mainstream cinema. Then along comes the devilishly sexy Chloe, a film that he did not write, and despite flaws in the script, is very much a mainstream, entertaining and straightforward thriller that will divide audiences and critics but may prove to be Egoyan’s most commercially successful film to date. Julianne Moore plays Catherine, a Toronto-based gynaecologist whose husband, David, (Liam Neeson) spends so much time away from home that she begins to suspect he’s sleeping around. On a whim, she hires a sexy high-class hooker Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to seduce David and test his fidelity, but it turns out that Chloe is sexually manipulative to the point of sexual obsession.
Reminding one of the likes of Single White Female and those kinds of revenge thrillers of the 80s, Chloe is a film that is part film noir with its perfectly alluring femme fatale, and borders on absurdist parody that somehow works due the intelligence of director Egoyan. He is also a cinematic master of manipulation, and has always given the audience films that are more than what they seem, playing games with the viewer as well as narrative and character. Having made films that are often mercilessly dark, Egoyan chose to shott the erotic script by screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and give it his own spin, while at the same time conforming to traditional narrative structure. Egoyan achieves a film that some may question while others will find irresistible in its use of eroticism, role play and perceptions of character. It really is a film that purists will take far too seriously, when it is clear that the director is having a huge amount of fun, mischievously playing with his characters as well as toying with us, the viewer. Chloe is intensely sexual, a teasing, tantalising wonderfully funny and fascinating study of the nature of obsession, and by casting Mama Mia’s Amanda Seyfried in the title role, perceptions are completely thrown away. Having recently seen her in Jennifer’s Body, it is clear that Seyfried is a versatile movie star in the classic Hollywood tradition. As Chloe, she is bewitching, incredibly sexy yet we see the pain and longing she communicates with very little but a gesture or those incredible eyes. She is wonderful to watch, seductive and compelling. Julianne Moore is superb as the doctor whose insecurities have tragic consequences. Moore has many great moments and her scenes with the indomitable Neeson are superb.
Chloe is a devilishly intoxicating entertainment, beautifully shot in Toronto and succeeds as both a contemporary film noir and delicious parody of the genre, with its mix of eroticism, fantasy and thriller elements that all weave together into this odd mix of escapist entertainment. It may not be remembered as one o Egoyan’s best film, but for my money, it’s his most entertaining, fun works in years and shows what a sense of humour he has about ourselves and the art of cinema. [PF]
TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL CLOSES WITH AWARDS
The Toronto Film Festival was over for another year, and as usual, the annual event concluded with an awards reception. Here are the winners in the different categories.
AWARD FOR BEST CANADIAN SHORT FILM
THE SKYY Vodka AWARD FOR BEST CANADIAN FIRST FEATURE FILM
The SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film went to Alexandre Franchi for The Wild Hunt “for its assured, inventive and bold command of film form traversing contemporary and mythic landscapes marking the launch of an audacious new talent”
The City of Toronto and Astral Media’s The Movie Network Award for Best Canadian Feature Film went to Ruba Nadda for Cairo Time, which was described by the jury as “a superbly directed lyrical waltz of longing and desire across disparate worlds, with exquisite performances by Patricia Clarkson, Tom McCamus and Alexander Siddig”.
The Prize of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI Prize) for Special Presentations was awarded to Bruno Dumont for Hadewijch (France).
First runner-up was Bruce Beresford Mao’s Last Dancer and the second runner-up was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot).
New this year was a Cadillac People’s Choice Award for Documentary and Midnight Madness. The Cadillac People’s Choice Award – Documentary went to Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins. Runner-up was Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.
The Cadillac People’s Choice Award – Midnight Madness went to Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones. Runner-up was Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig’s Daybreakers.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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