So my week at the Toronto Film Festival is over. I ended up seeing 21 films in total (down from my scheduled 23 because of I got sick on Thursday and ducked out before my last two shows). You will notice that a few changed from my preview, but that’s the way these go. Since I already gave short reviews of Trust, Boxing Gym and The Conspirator I will update you on the other 18 movies I saw over the weekend.
Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
Mark Romanek’s film, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishigiro, is a beautiful, touching film that mixes an English boarding school with an alternate history that is a dystopian view of the recent past. The movie opens at Hailsham, a boarding school in the English country side. But there is something different about this school, which if you don’t already know, I won’t tell you because the movie doesn’t reveal it right away. The reviews on this one have been mixed - with many complaining that they thought the film was cold and distant - but I think the style of the film worked wonderfully well with story. Romanek is obviously inspired by Stanley Kubrick, and that style makes the film even more effective to me - the formal coldness of the boarding school is perfectly captured, and as the film progresses through its three act structure, Romanek subtley changes the color palette. The performances are great - particularly Carey Mulligan as the narrator and main character Kathy who is tremendously sympathetic and Keira Knightley as her bitchy friend, who turns out to be much more complex than we initially thought. Never Let Me Go was one of my favorite films at the festival - and one of the best films of the year.
127 Hours (Danny Boyle)
James Franco gives a great performance in this real life story of Aron Ronston, a hiker out in the desert who falls down an cavern and gets his arm stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’s out there for days on end, with no one around except his camera to talk to. Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire, uses the same hyper kinetic style of filmmaking to keep things interesting - because afterall, much of the movie really is just Franco by himself in a canyon. Boyle does use some flashbacks, and a dynamite opening sequence involving Franco and two women he meets while hiking (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn). The film is harrowing, well made and intense pretty much from beginning to end, and Franco is great in the lead role (a definite candidate for an Oscar nomination this year). I do think that Boyle may go a little over the top with the visual fireworks, and A.R. Rahman’s score (which I think is brilliant on its own) is at times a little distracting when used in the course of the movie). Still, this was a great film.
Miral (Julien Schnabel)
Perhaps my biggest disappointment of the film festival is this, the new film from director Julien Schnabel. His last film was the brilliant and visual innovative The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The reason why the subjective visuals worked in that film was because that film was about a man trapped in his own body. But Schnabel decides to use the same style in this - a far reaching study of Palestine from 1948 through 1993. The film at different times has different protagonists, and the film shifts between them telling the story of an orphanage run by Hiam Abbas, and eventually the story of one of the girls who grew up there (Frieda Pinto). The film looks great - Eric Gautier’s cinematography is sweeping, and the editing is marvelous - but it is completely and totally the wrong style for the film. The narrative is confused, and Schnabel never really provides any real perspective on anything. The film is clearly very pro-Palestinian, and even if I don’t agree 100% with its politics, that’s not why I think the film doesn’t work. It’s that Schnabel has a fascinating story, a good cast (Abbas is particularly good, and I think Pinto could have been good given the chance) but he gets so lost in the visual style that he forgets to tell the story, and let the actors build their characters. A failure from a great director, who will ubdoubtedly rebound.
Let Me In (Matt Reeves)
Like many people I was nervous when they announced plans to remake the wonderful Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In from a few years ago. But to my surprise and delight, the American remake by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) is nearly as good as its predecessor - a film that respects the original, and remains faithful to it, but isn’t a shot for shot remake either. Casting talents kids like Kodi Smit McPhee (The Road) and Chloe Grace Mortez (Kick Ass) helps. Mortez in particular changes the character from the original, and makes her vampire more naïve and even sympathetic at times. Also excellent is Richard Jenkins, playing her “father” as a painfully shy man unable to communicate on pretty much any level. Reeves captures the mood and atmosphere of film perfectly. This is easily the best American horror film I have seen this year, and as for the ending - why mess with perfection?
Beautiful Boy (Shawn Ku)
Michael Sheen and Maria Bello give great performances as parents of a teenager who shoots up his college killing 17 students and faculty before turning the gun on themselves. Shawn Ku’s debut film takes a different approach to the school shooting movie - we don’t get to know the kid at all, what his motivations were, and we never see any of the footage of the shooting itself. Instead it concentrates solely on the aftermath of the shooting from the point of view of the parents - who seem like normal, loving people who had no idea what their son was planning or why he killed so many people before killing himself. It makes it impossible to grieve normally when the entire country hates your son and by extension you. This is a powerful examination of loss and grief that doesn’t let up for a second, and contains two of the years best performances. I do have to wonder how big an audience there will be for this film, which is unrelentingly dark and depressing, but hopefully it finds its audience.
Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell)
John Cameron Mitchell is one of the most daring, interesting filmmakers working right now. For the first time, he is working from someone else’s material - David Lindsay Abaire’s Broadway play that he has adapted himself. The movie stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a couple reeling after the death of their 4 year old son in an accident 8 months ago. They are dealing with their pain in different ways - and most importantly dealing with it alone. This is Kidman’s best performance in years - raw and real, both painfully honest and also darkly funny. Eckhart as well does some of his best work as her husband who is trying so hard to keep it together, but just can’t do it anymore. Diane Wiest is excellent as Kidman’s flaky mother, as are Tammy Blanchard as her immature sister and Miles Teller as a teenager whose role I will not reveal. Totally unlike Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus (Mitchell’s first two films, which it should be said are not much alike either), this film brings Mithcell into the mainstream, but still manages to be honest and real. A triumph for everyone involved.
The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Briellant)
I have always had a like hate relationship with the films of Catherine Briellant (I don’t say love hate because I don’t think I’ve ever loved any of her films), and The Sleeping Beauty certainly falls into the later category. This is perhaps the film I have disliked the most of any of the films I have ever seen at the film festival. The Sleeping Beauty is a confused, jumbled mess of a movie that makes little sense and is wildly pretentious to boot. I’m sure someone will explain why this is really a masterpiece at some point, but to me it is the same old, same old from Briellant. I mean how many times I am going to have to watch some teenage lothario seduce an innocent girl and steal her virginity in a Briellant film? I hated this film, but I guess if you are more of a fan of her work, you may have like it more.
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt has quickly established herself as one of the most interesting filmmakers in American right now. Old Joy is a sensitive, original portrait of two middle age friends reuniting after years, and Wendy and Lucy was an even better film, a study of a poor woman on the road with her beloved dog. Meek’s Cutoff is a larger movie than Reichardt has made before - with a much larger cast - and is a period piece, about a wagon train in the 1840s across Oregon. They are led by Bruce Greenwood’s Meek, who has led other groups before, but this time his shortcut has done nothing but gotten them lost. As they wander further and further out in the middle of the desert, their food supply becomes short, and the three couples along with Meek (including Michelle Williams, excellent as always) all start coming in on Meek - debating whether or not they should hang him, and starting to trust an Native they have captured. The modern day parallels are obvious (crazy old white guy brings a bunch of people into the middle of the desert where he doesn’t know what the hell he is doing), but I admired the film on a much simpler level - it is a wagon train movie completely devoid of the normal clichés the genre brings - Reichardt even went as far as shooting the movie in 1.33:1 instead of widescreen to keep the “majestic vistas” shots to a minimum, concentrating solely on the present of these characters. A fascinating, excellent crafted, intelligent, well acted film - one of the best films of the festival, although I know some people are going to be pissed off about the ending.
The Debt (John Madden)
John Madden’s The Debt is a crackerjack thriller - and the directors best film since Shakespeare in Love more than a decade ago. Flashing back and forth in time, from the 1960s to the 1990s, the film is about three Mossad agents (Jessica Chastin, Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington in the 60s, Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkison and Ciaran Hinds in the 1990s - and the mission they take in the 1960s to take down a Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen) in Berlin - and how the secrets of that mission effect the agents 30 years later. The film is fast paced, and twists and turns and surprised me with each new revelation. The performances are all fine - but Helen Mirren stands out as a woman who is much more complex than we first believe and Jesper Christensen who is excellent as the evil Nazi war criminal. A fine thriller, that is also a little more morally complex than most films of its ilk.
Amigo (John Sayles)
John Sayles is one of the few truly independent filmmakers in America - he always makes precisely the films that he wants to make. His latest, Amigo, is one of his best recent efforts. The film is set in the Phillipines in 1900 when the Americans were an occupying force. Garret Dillahunt is the leader of a platoon of troops assigned to occupy a small village. At first he and his soldiers are wary of the villagers, but soon they come to like and respect them. This is bad news for Chris Cooper, who is the leader of the ground forces who hates them becoming friendly even though they are supposed to be “winning their hearts and minds”. Yes, the film is an allegory for Iraq, but it works on its own terms as well. Joel Torre is excellent as the head man of the village who is in a no win situation - if he cooperates with the Americans, the rebels will kill him, if he doesn’t the Americans will kill him. An intelligent movie that while it doesn’t quite reach greatness, still represents some of the best work Sayles has done in a decade or so.
Womb (Benedek Fliegauf)
Womb has a story idea that I thought sounded completely fascinating, Eva Green stars as a woman who falls madly in love with a man who dies in a car accident. She decides to give birth to the man’s clone, but that just makes things more complicated. In this movie, set slightly in the future, clones are common, but looked down upon by everyone as second class citizens. But what is more interesting is the relationship between the mother and child - which is confused between maternal and sexual feelings, which is even more confusing for the child because he doesn’t know he is a clone, or that anything is wrong with what he feels. The problem with the movie is nothing is ever really explored in any detail. Writer/director Benedek Fliegauf is too interested his visuals - which are often arresting - that his story suffers, and never properly develops. There are some good moments, and Eva Green is quite good, but the movie never really gels. I doubt this one will get picked up for distribution over here, but a DVD is inevitable - and they will try and sell it as a horror film. Don’t buy it, this is a pretentious film that never really takes off.
Route Irish (Ken Loach)
Ken Loach has been making his socially conscious films for almost 50 years now - and some of his films certainly work better than others. It was just a matter of time before he made a film that dealt directly with the Iraq war, and that is what Route Irish is about. It is centered on a former Irish soldier working for a private security firm in Iraq until he is killed. His best friend back in Ireland wants to get to the bottom of what really happened to his friend - what he discovers is a vast conspiracy involving money and the killing of Iraqi civilians, which causes him to go all Charles Bronson in Death Wish in the last act of the film. The film never quite comes together into a believable narrative, although the lead performance (by Mark Womack) is excellent, and as always the direction by Loach is fine. I just wish the film, which Loach has said he made because he wanted to focus on the Iraq tragedy for the civilians of Iraq, had either been more focused on the politics, thus making it is a truly political film, or less so, so that it could have been a guilty pleasure of a revenge movie. By trying to do both, Loach does justice to neither.
What’s Wrong with Virginia (Dustin Lance Black)
Dustin Lance Black’s extremely personal What’s Wrong with Virginia is a movie about schizophrenia that takes a decidedly different take on the disease - he has made essentially a comedy/satire about the subject. Jennifer Connelly gives one of her best performances as a schizeophrenic mother to a teenage son who has been having an affair with the married Sheriff (Ed Harris) of her small hometown for years. Now he is running for State Senate, and her son has his eyes on his daughter (Emma Roberts) and he needs to cut off all contact with her, or risk his sexual obsessions. The film plays like a mixture of the work of Douglas Sirk and David Lynch, by way of Todd Haynes, a bright, candy colored portrait of small time life where a lot more is going on beneath the surface than we first suspect. Academy award winning screenwriter Black (Milk) may have bitten off a little more than he can chew to make a truly great directorial debut, but he has made a very good one - a film filled with wild ambition that shows that even if this film isn’t a masterpiece, that he has one in him at some point.
Passion Play (Mitch Glazer)
I may have hated The Sleeping Beauty more than any film I saw at this year’s festival, but objectively speaking Passion Play was the worst film. It is an absolutely ridiculous fantasy about a down on his luck jazz singer (Mickey Rourke) who is taken out to the middle of the desert to be murdered, somehow escapes and ends up at a circus where he meets sideshow freak Megan Fox - a woman with wings. He uses her to get him out trouble with a gangster (Bill Murray), but then realizes that he has fallen in love with her. No matter how ridiculous that premise sounds, I guarantee you that watching the movie is 10 times worse - it is horribly written by Glazer, and the talented cast cannot save it. This is the type of work Rourke was doing before his comeback, and while it is easy to take potshots Megan Fox, no one could have saved this role. Bill Murray seems to know that the whole thing is ridiculous, and has fun with his role. It is a downright awful film, and one that should be forgotten as quickly as possible.
Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper)
Kevin Spacey gives his best performance in at least a decade as Jack Abramoff, the Washington DC super lobbyist who was at the heart of the biggest political corruption scandal since Watergate. Spacey makes Abrahmoff charming and somewhat likable - a nice guy who is undone by his own greed and ego. Nothing is ever enough for him, and he keeps spending more and more money that he doesn’t have, meaning he has to stretch the laws further and further until he has way surpassed what he is legally allowed to do. The typical movie would have portrayed him as a one note villain, but Spacey does more than that. You like the bastard despite of yourself - his easy charm, his cheesy movie impressions - until you remember just what it is he is doing. Spacey is the best reason to see the movie - the supporting performances are all fine, especially from Jon Lovitz as a sleazy mattress salesman and the late, great Maury Chaykin as a mobster - but this really is Spacey’s show, and he makes the most of this great role. At times, the movie does feel like something you could see HBO making, but since HBO often makes great movies, that isn’t really an insult. A supremely entertaining film with a great lead performance by an actor who used to be among the best in American movies - and can be again if he gets many more roles this good.
The Whistleblower (Larysa Kondraki)
Larysa Kondraki’s debut film features Rachel Weisz in a wonderful performance as a Lincoln, Nebraska cop who agrees to head off to Bosnia for 6 months to be a peacekeeper. It isn’t long before she realizes that women are treated like second class citizens, and almost nothing is being done to protect them - even by the police and the UN itself. As she digs deeper, she stumbles upon a sex trafficking ring that the UN is not only complicit with, but involved in. The film is a rather standard issue thriller, with a political motive, but it is very well made by Kondraki, and at times very difficult to watch as we see what happens to these poor girls who are smuggled into the country and used as sex slaves. Rachel Weisz is excellent in the lead role, and is provided decent support by David Striathairn, Vanessa Redgrave and Monica Bellucci among others. A very good little film that indicates that Kondraki could make an even better film at some point in the future - she has the tools to do so.
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
The last film I saw at this year’s festival was also far and away the best. In 2007, I saw Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine because I had a hole in my schedule and was completely and totally blown away by it (that the film never got proper distribution in North America, not even on DVD, is still a source of disappointment to me). His follow-up to that film is this masterful film about a 65 year old woman (played brilliantly by Jeong-hee Yoon) who living on government assistance and what she earns as a part time maid, and has to raise her teenage grandson by herself as her daughter got divorced and moved, leaving her alone. She gets two shocking pieces of information almost at once - one is that she has early onset Alzheimers, and will slowly lose her mind, and the other being that her grandson was involved with raping a classmate of his over a span of six months that only ended when she killed herself. At the same time, she starts taking a poetry class, and finds that writing poetry is far too difficult for her. The film, like Secret Sunshine, is about a woman who is confronting an almost impossible obstacles, but this time, she has no one to lean on, and instead puts all of her faith into this poetry - as if she needs to get her thoughts out now before the Alzheimers steals her language forever. A masterful film by one of the best directors working anywhere in the world right now - and one that deserves much more attention in North America.
So there you have it, 21 movies over 6 days at the festival. I am tired, and of course I am still sick and tired. This coming week, I will be back with full length reviews of Never Let Me Go, The Town and Easy A (the last two being Festival films that I have seen since my festival ended) as well as Enter the Void, a film I saw at last year’s festival that is finally making its way into theaters this week. We are now well into the last third of the year, which means that pretty much every week between now and the end of December will bring at least one film that is vying for awards attention - it is the best time of year to watch movies.