Toronto Film Festival Update: TIFF So Far #1

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The first weekend of the Toronto Film Festival has been so crazy busy for ComingSoon.net’s roving reporter Edward Douglas in trying to see movies and do all the interviews we lined up, that it’s been hard to write anything, let alone finish any of the reviews for movies seen so far. We do have a lot of movie reviews to post for movies opening in the coming weeks, but rather than rushing them out and giving our readers less than our best, we’ve decided to post a couple of updates over the course of the week with capsule reviews of what we’ve seen so far. (And yes, we realize that we never published a “Part 2″ for our preview piece which went up last week. Sorry about that.)

Basically, we’re going from best to worst of the movies we’ve seen so far, but the standout highlight of the festival for us so far has been Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight / Warner Bros. – Nov. 28), the story of a young street thief named Jamal, his older brother Salim and a pretty girl named Latika that comes between them. Based on the novel “Q ‘n’ A,” it seems like a fairly simple story, but it’s the way it’s told that really makes it something that has made people take note. Essentially, Jamal has gotten himself onto India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and he’s done exceedingly well, so everyone assumes he’s cheating. His story is framed by him being tortured and interrogated by a tough policeman trying to find out how he knew the answers, and then the film flashes back to Jamal’s life on the street with his opportunistic and abusive older brother who tries to keep Jamal from the young girl he falls in love with as a boy. It’s a really amazing film in terms of the script and editing and the way Boyle captures the evolution of Bombay into Mumbai, but the acting across the board is incredible, particularly Dev Patel as the older Jamal. (It’s interesting in that three young actors play the three main characters across the ten to twelve years in which the story takes place.) There’s a lot of buzz circulating around the festival about this being a potential Best Picture nomination, and while I’m not convinced it can go that far–it seems too much like last year’s “The Kite Runner,” an excellent film that won’t interest anyone besides critics due to the lack of stars and the fact it takes place in a foreign part of the world–I do think it stands the chance of getting a lot of technical awards attention, and it would be nice to see Boyle finally get some of the recognition that’s well overdue, since it’s easily one of the best movies we’ve seen so far and possibly one of Boyle’s best films ever. We’re looking forward to speaking with Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy about the movie later in the week.

We erroneously called Rod Lurie’s Nothing But the Truth (Yari Film Group – Dec. 18) a “political thriller” in the preview piece, but it’s more of a drama, and even though it’s based in politics, the movie is more about journalistic integrity and how standing up to one’s principles could potentially destroy one’s personal life. Kate Beckinsale gives the best performance of her career (and that’s saying something considering how good she was in David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels earlier this year) as Rachel Armstrong, the D.C. reporter who breaks the story about a fellow soccer mom who is in fact a CIA operative, played by Vera Farmiga. It’s loosely based on the true story of Valerie Plame who was outed in a similar way, causing a huge stir in the media, but Lurie takes the idea to the extreme with Armstrong facing a tough FBI investigator, played by Matt Dillon, who throws her in jail. It may be one of Lurie’s strongest film scripts that really pops due to such memorable performances from all involved. While this is clearly Beckinsale’s show, Farmiga is always great, and Alan Alda steals a number of scenes as her defense lawyer by bringing a bit of levity to what is a very serious and tense drama otherwise. I expect the cast, particularly Beckinsale, and Lurie’s script to get a lot of attention in the next few months.

Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (Sony Pictures Classics) took me by surprise, not only because it was a French film starring Kristin Scott Thomas, who has apparently defected to that country in the past year–she also starred in the recent hit thriller Tell No One–but also because it’s essentially a heavy character drama that’s never dull or boring. (Think Todd Field’s In the Bedroom.) Thomas stars as a woman who moves in with her estranged sister’s family after having been “away” for 15 years. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot at this moment, but Thomas gives an Oscar worthy performance as does Elsa Zylberstein playing her sister, but it’s a terrific debut from French novelist Philippe Claudel, one you should expect to read more about over the next few months.

David Koepp’s Ghost Town (DreamWorks – Sept. 19) starring Ricky Gervais and Téa Leoni was another nice surprise, because it has the trappings of a standard meet-cute romantic comedy based in a “Sixth Sense” like premise, but the three stars including Greg Kinnear as the ghost connecting the two of them, really bring a lot to the material. Essentially, Gervais is an anti-social dentist who has a near-death experience that allows him to see the spirits of the dead in Manhattan who hope to use him as their envoy to find closure. If you’ve enjoyed Gervais’ previous roles in television shows like “The Office” and “Extras,” then his role as Bertram Pincus D.D.S. is a logical extension that once again shows he has a lot of layers as an actor, but putting him together with Leoni in New York City has created a dynamic that’s very much a modern day “Annie Hall”… with the high concept ghost premise as a jumping on point. It’s a smart comedy with a strong heart unlike so many other films that have attempted a similar mix.

If you don’t read the credits, you probably won’t believe that The Wrestler, just picked up by Fox Searchlight after winning the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, is the new movie from Darren (The Fountain) Aronofsky, since it’s so different in look and feel from his three previous films, taking a simpler low-fi approach with none of the cinematic stylishness of The Fountain. It stars Mickey Rourke as professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson who is advised to give up his career after experiencing a near-fatal heart attack, and it shows how he tries to start a new life, reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and find love with a stripper who likes him but sees him more as a customer. The latter is played by Marisa Tomei whose tattoo-covered body and nipple piercings adds to her eerily credible performance, and it adds to the amazing realism Aranofsky went for with his fourth movie, and it’s almost as impressive as what Rourke did for the role: growing his hair long, bulking up his muscles and learning enough moves to really be believable. You seriously forget that this is Mickey Rourke, longtime film actor, more than once. Overall, the movie is good with a loose plot that’s more of a day-to-day look at the lives of these broken characters, but it’s really Rourke’s movie through and through.

There are a couple of movies playing this year that might be seen as derivative due to their genre but feature such good writing and great performances that it’s hard not to take them seriously. Viggo Mortensen is getting a lot of attention for the number of movies he’s appearing in this fall after his Oscar nomination last year, but the better of his two at TIFF is Good (THINKFilm – Dec. ’08), a drama based on the play by C.P. Taylor, about a German literature professor whose fiction novel is embraced by the Third Reich during their early days, allowing him to live luxuriously even as his marriage falls apart. Viggo is very good in this but it’s the performance by Jason Isaacs as his long-time friend and colleague, an affluent Jewish scholar whose life crumbles as his friend’s star is on the ascendant, that leaves a lasting impression. (And I’m not just saying that because I learned that Isaacs often reads ComingSoon.net!)

Also, we were blown away by Keira Knightley’s performance in the costume drama The Duchess (Paramount Vantage – Sept. 19), which again, some might find derivative due to its thematic similarities to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but the writing and acting is far superior. Essentially, Knightly plays Georgiana Spencer, the young Duchess of Devonshire, a spirited woman who has to contend with a stern and emotionless husband in the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) who just sees her as a “baby machine” whose only reason for existence is to deliver him a son and heir. Both of them are terrific, really creating sparks in their many confrontations as she gets into politics and falls in love with a young politician, played by Dominic Cooper from Mamma Mia!. It’s a gorgeous looking film from Saul Dibb that stands up to some of the best movies of the genre, and Knightley is even better in it than Atonement and Pride & Prejudice.

The second movie from Rian (Brick) Johnson, The Brothers Bloom (Summit – Dec. 19) is another favorite from the festival, mainly due to Johnson’s amazing script and visual flair, plus a couple of memorable eccentric characters played by Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi (from Babel), who steal the movie from Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo, as the title stars, a pair of fraternal con men trying to do one last big job together before going their separate ways. It’s really amazing what Johnson is able to do when he has a serious budget and a couple bigger name stars, and I’m not sure that Prague has ever looked better in a movie. Believe it or not, I’ve already seen the movie twice, but we have a great interview with Rian and with the cast to run closer to the release of the movie in December.

I’ve been waiting a long time for another movie from Mike Leigh after Vera Drake in 2004, but Happy-Go-Lucky (Miramax – Oct. 10) is a very different film, a comedy starring Sally Hawkins as a bright and bubbly schoolteacher from London’s Camden Town who has to contend with the angry and hateful Eddie Marsan as her driving teacher. The two of them (who played Vera Drake’s daughter and her fiancé in Leigh’s previous movie) have some amazing scenes together as their very different views on life clash in some delightful friction-filled moments. It’s a comedy only in the sense that Hawkins’ character is very funny, but there’s a lot of real weight and poignancy to what Leigh does with the characters.

One of the more intriguing smaller movies at TIFF this year is Mark Doherty and Ian FitzGibbon’s A Film with Me in It starring Doherty and Irish stand-up Dylan Moran (Shaun of the Dead, Run, Fat Boy, Run) as two aspiring filmmakers who experience tragedy at home when they must contend with a series of accidental deaths. The pitch dark comedy is reminiscent of some of the Coen Brothers’ movies like Fargo with lots of surprises along the way. (We had a chance to sit down with all three guys to talk about the movie, and we’ll hopefully have those interviews up soon.)

Speaking of which, we’ll hopefully have our full review of the Coen Brothers’ latest Burn After Reading (Focus – Sept. 12) up soon. It features an amazing ensemble cast including George Clooney and Brad Pitt, but I think people will be surprised that it’s not nearly as much of a wacky comedy as it’s being sold. It’s more of the Coens doing a political piece that acts as an indictment of the red tape put up by the government and CIA, which prevents anything from ever getting done. John Malkovich and Frances McDormand are really great in the movie, and it’s really more about their character arcs than that of Clooney or Pitt, both whom are hamming it up and playing against type in the movie, which is so dark that it certainly will not be everyone’s cup of joe.

Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla (Warner Bros. – Oct. 8) is clearly a return to form and like the Coens’ movie, it involves a series of eccentric characters interacting in both funny and violent ways. It also takes some time to get going before you can really get into the story, and while it’s hard to simplify the complex plot, it involves an old school gangster played by Tom Wilkinson, a gang of thugs led by Gerard Butler, and a stolen painting that puts them all at odds. Even so, it’s Mark Strong as Wilkinson’s right hand man Archy and Toby Kebbel as Wilkinson’s junkie rocker stepson who steal the movie, and it’s fun to see what Ritchie does with a strong female character like the accountant played by Thandie Newton who plays such a large part in the story.

Those expecting raunchy sex and nudity in Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Weinstein Co. – October 31) shouldn’t be disappointed, although there’s also a touching relationship comedy at the heart of it between the two main characters, played by Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, who really elevate what might be seen as a fairly high concept premise. Fans of Smith should love it as much as his previous films, and except for one particular gross-out scene, it’s surprisingly classy despite all the usual swearing. (We have a great interview with Smith we’ll be running sometime soon.)

Ed Harris’ adaptation of Appaloosa (Warner Bros. – Sept. 19) co-starring Viggo Mortensen and Renee Zellwegger is a fairly decent, very conventional take on the Western genre compared some of last year’s offerings. Like Ritchie’s movie, it takes some time to get going, as much of the first half of the movie takes place in the type of lawless town we’ve seen in so many other movies and on “Deadwood,” and Harris and Mortensen are the lawmen who arrive to clean the town up. Zellwegger is the weak link, playing the same smirking know-it-all she seems to be playing in every other recent movie, and it’s not until the movie leaves town and gets away from the love triangle aspect of the story when it starts getting interesting. While Harris and Mortensen are both as good as always, it’s Jeremy Irons as the bad guy who steals the movie and who is especially menacing when he turns over a new leaf and becomes the town’s benevolent benefactor. This isn’t a big shoot ‘em up Western, but there are a couple of tense stand-offs that should appease those looking for them.

Mexico’s most acclaimed screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams) makes his feature film directorial debut with The Burning Plain, a slow non-linear drama starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger as daughter and mother following similar paths in life. It’s confusing at first and exceedingly slow, but once you figure out what’s going on, it’s a fascinating character drama. Theron is as good as always, but it’s Basinger’s performance that really knocks you out as well as some of the younger actors like Jennifer Lawrence (playing the younger version of Charlize’s character) who really steal the movie. The non-linear storytelling seems somewhat unnecessary though, and it’s what might put off some who might enjoy the movie otherwise.

Toa Fraser’s Dean Spanley is a period drama set at the turn of the century with obvious literary roots, and while it’s very witty, it’s also somewhat dull, mainly consisting of Sam Neill as the title character regaling of his past life as a dog to Jeremy Northam and Bryan Brown over a rare Hungarian desert wine. It’s a slight bit of misdirection for what the movie is really about, which is having Northam’s cranky and outspoken father, played by Peter O’Toole, get over the death of his other son during the Boer War, but it’s only in the last 20 minutes or so where you come to realize that. Even though the film is dull, the writing is solid and O’Toole’s performance does steal the movie from a generally decent cast.

I made the mistake of reading Rachel Kohn and David Levithan’s novel on which Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Sony – Oct. 3) is based right before seeing the movie, and that might have been my undoing in terms of enjoying it. It’s not that the movie isn’t as good, but it’s very different, because they changed a lot to turn it into a wackier comedy and it goes so far away from the book that when they do include a couple scenes taken directly from the novel they no longer work as well. The young cast is very good, including Kat Dennings from The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Michael Cera from Superbad, and the likes of Ari Gaynor and Jay Baruchel as those around them, and it probably will have a similar effect on younger people outside of New York City as Martin Scorsese’s After Hours had on me. Being a New Yorker who lives or spends time in some of the areas seen in the movie, it’s a little harder to adjust to Peter (Raising Victor Vargas) Sollett’s vision of a “night out on the town” but he does ultimately capture the young love aspect of the story that’s so important.

One of the bigger disappointments for me so far is Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (Sony Classics – Oct. 24), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, which seems too weird for the sake of being weird, which isn’t bad in itself, but it’s also thoroughly depressing and fairly unrepentant about its downer tone. It’s a grueling two hours of watching a theater director’s life fall apart around him as his wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him with his daughter and he finds solace in various women as he prepares to stage the world’s biggest production inside a warehouse. It’s such a weird concept, even for Kaufman, and though he’s able to pull off the scope of the idea, it really boggles the mind for two hours and then leaves you wondering what you just watched. There’s just none of the joy of life that made Kaufman’s scripts for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation so special.

That film’s co-star Michelle Williams gives a strong performance in Kelly (Old Joy) Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (Oscilloscope Pictures – Dec. 10), a film that uses a similar approach as some of Gus van Sant’s recent films in following a young woman named Wendy whose car breaks down in Oregon en route to Alaska and then she loses her dog Lucy. This is one of those really slow movies that attempts realism by working off a loose plot and script, but there are a lot of problems in the latter, and the low-fi approach (actually similar to The Wrestler in some ways) won’t be appreciated by everyone, and it’s not something one must see in theaters.

As far as the outright duds, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna (Touchstone – Sept. 26) is just way too long and rambling; there’s just no nicer way to put it. It starts out interesting enough with a present -day shooting in a post office, jumps around a bit before flashing back to WWII where the all-black 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers are traveling through Italy. The first half hour of the movie is really strong, giving a glimpse of the African-American soldiers who fought in WWII who haven’t received their due, but the movie goes off the beaten track, spending too much time with the Italian villagers, including a needless love triangle between two soldiers with a local woman. By the time the movie crosses the two-hour mark and eventually gets back to the original framing storyline, you just don’t care anymore. The performance by Laz Alonso is the clear standout among the four main actors, but sadly, Spike Lee’s WWII movie is just not that much better than Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.

I don’t want to write too much about The Secret Life of Bees (Fox Searchlight – Oct. 17) just yet, because frankly, it was so boring that I bailed about 90 minutes into it. Based on the best-selling novel, it’s a talky and weepy chick flick set in the South during the ’60s, starring Dakota Fanning as an abused girl who moves in with a group of friendly black women. Maybe women will appreciate it more than I did, but watching this movie at 9:30 at night after a long day was not a good idea. The performance that really stood out was that of Sophie Okonedo, but once her character leaves the story, it just stopped being interesting for me.

I had some real issues with Bill Maher and Larry Charles’ Religulous (Lionsgate – Oct. 3), a “Borat”-like take on religion that has Maher finding the craziest religious zealots he could to try to prove that believing in God or religion or faith of any kind means one should be committed. It’s not that great a movie, not even as good as Ben Stein’s “Expelled,” which got trashed by liberal critics who were opposed to Stein using comedy to question Darwin’s theories of evolution. Maher basically uses the exact same techniques, cracking jokes and cutting in footage to make fun of his subjects, rather than trying to prove his case by talking seriously with theologians and those who are experts in the fields of religion and faith. It’s weak as a documentary and only as funny as you find Maher.

At least once in their careers, every filmmaker has the opportunity to have an epic fail and Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles finally did so miserably with his take on José Saramago’s novel Blindness (Miramax – Sept. 26), possibly one of the worst movie I’ve seen at the festival and this year. The premise of a virus that makes people lose their sight might have been interesting but the movie takes it to the most repulsive extreme as it throws eye doctor Mark Ruffalo and his sighted wife Julianne Moore into a prison full of blind people including Alice Braga and Gael Garcia Bernal, all fumbling around as if they’re in a bad acting workshop gone wrong, and the whole thing gets even more repulsive as it goes along. Things aren’t much better in the latter half where there are a couple of twists including one that’s almost as bad as the one in M. Night Shyamalan’s recent The Happening. As bad as that movie was, this one is worse, and it’s seriously disappointing considering how much I’ve loved Meirelles’ previous movies, City of God and The Constant Gardener.

We’ve decided to hold off on seeing Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married until we get back to New York, but in the coming week, we’re looking forward to catching Michael Winterbottom’s Genova (THINKFilm), Jean-Françcois Richet’s gangster saga Public Enemy Number One, as well as Atom Egoyan’s latest drama Adoration.

Look for another update from the Toronto Film Festival later in the week and then full reviews of some of the movies discussed in the coming weeks.

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