The Toronto Film Festival Wrap-Up

The annual Toronto International Film Festival is officially over and ComingSoon.net has already departed from the beautiful city of Toronto, so here’s a wrap-up of the other movies we saw while there. You can still read our first write-up here, but most of our second week at the festival consisted of us seeing movies that either haven’t been picked up for distribution or don’t have release dates booked, which is very different from the festival’s first weekend, which mainly consisted of studio movies that will be released in the coming months.

Again in order from best to worst, our favorite movie that we watched in the past week was Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, starring Zac Efron as Richard, a young wannabe who comes to New York in 1937 and winds up acting in Orson Welles’ groundbreaking production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the newly-opened Mercury Theater on Broadway. This was such a fun and witty theatrical-based film with a terrific ensemble cast, many of them playing real people, like the always-great Eddie Marsan (Hancock) as acting legend John Houseman and Ben Chaplin as George Couloros, but it’s clearly Christian McKay’s performance as Welles himself that really drives the movie. He’s quite amazing in the role, having played it on stage in a little-seen off-Broadway play, but Efron does a great job turning on the charm as an ambitious young man who’s almost like a more naïve and innocent version of Welles. Anyone who thinks Efron is only good for singing and dancing may be surprised what a strong performance he pulls out against far more experienced actors including Claire Danes as the older theater manager he falls for. Based on a novel, this is obviously a fictionalized version of the events surrounding the production, but the script by Holly and Vincent Palmo is great. Though the movie does sometimes go for the most obvious and hokey cinematic beats, it’s probably one of the best films Linklater has directed since Before Sunset. Maybe like with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, it’s such a different type of movie that we’ve come to expect from the prolific and always fascinating Austin filmmaker that one has to take notice, but It’s especially entertaining to watch him pull off a period piece that’s so heavy on production design and setting. He really does pull it off, finally proving to be a director who can do almost anything. A smart distributor should be able to make some nice change on the movie, since it’s a crowd-pleasing film that older audiences will love.

While I’ve been hesitant at spending too much time watching documentaries at the festivals Real to Reel section, I couldn’t miss Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud which brings together Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Jack White from the White Stripes, and U2′s The Edge for a roundtable discussion and impromptu jam session revolving around their love for the guitar. The movie doesn’t necessarily get into the technical or historical aspects of the instrument as much as showing the origins of the three guitarists and how they evolved their respective sounds and styles. If you’re a fan of their bands, it’s fascinating stuff, especially their never-before-told stories and anecdotes as well as some of the archival footage. But seriously, when you have Jimmy Page and Jack White jamming with The Edge on “I Will Follow” or you see Page playing the riff from “Whole Lotta Love,” you just gotta swoon whether or not you consider yourself a fan or not. Not that one might be surprised that we’d get such a strong, well-structured rock doc from the maker of An Inconvenient Truth, but Guggenheim has created a special film that should find distribution soon.

In the past few years, there have been dozens of military dramas that have tried to interest moviegoing audiences in the ongoing war in the Middle East. Few of them are as riveting as Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which was picked up by Summit Entertainment shortly after its TIFF premiere. It stars Jeremy Renner as a hotshot bomb expert who becomes the third in a group of soldiers whose main job is to defuse potential bomb situations. Like some of Bigelow’s most popular movies like Point Break and Near Dark, this is an Iraq movie that’s about the action and the tension, more of a male-bonding experience than something that gets heavily into the politics of our troops being over there. There isn’t much of a plot in terms of typical three-act structure, but it’s all about the various missions these soldiers face and the situations that causes friction between them but also bonds them and forces them to decide whether what they’re doing is right. Even so, it’s much more like Peter Berg’s action-thriller The Kingdom than Brian De Palma’s Redacted, though feeling more realistic than either, served well by having real actors in the roles rather than soldiers trying to act as in the latter. Jeremy Renner is particularly good as the soldier who takes all sorts of risks, constantly putting his own life and those around him in danger, and Anthony Mackie is great as his sergeant who thinks the new guy will get them all killed, both of them making you feel as if you’re watching what these guys must really go through. (There’s also small passing roles for the likes of Guy Pearce, David Morse and Ralph Fiennes, which bring a lot to the movie.) Like so many movies at TIFF, it’s a bit long and it feels it, but Summit should be able to cut a great trailer that should create similar interest among guys as other strong war movies and avoid the negative vibe towards Iraq movies that have killed so many of them at the box office.

With a similar message about the war in Iraq but a different tone, feel and overall M.O., Neil Burger’s The Lucky Ones (Roadside Attractions – Sept. 26) follows Tim Robbins, Michael Peña and Rachel McAdams as three injured soldiers on leave who drive across the country to deal with personal issues. It’s almost like a lighter and more watchable version of the recent Home of the Brave, which thrives on the character-driven story and the terrific performances by all three actors at making believable characters that you enjoy watching for an entire movie. Like The Wrestler and Me and Orson Welles, it’s Burger doing something very different from his previous movie, the glossy period thriller The Illusionist, being more of a simpler low-budget road movie. McAdams is delightful as always as the perky Coley, creating some great moments with Peña and Robbins, and while it sometimes feels preachy in its anti-war message, and there’s a few too many silly devices used to drive the plot forward, like when two of them experience a twister during a casual drive in the desert, it rarely goes where you might expect it. It’s especially clever in the way Burger explores both sides of the soldier’s experience coming home in the way people react to the three soldiers. It’s nice having a movie about soldiers and Iraq that allows for a bit of fun amidst the drama and tragedy, and ultimately, it’s a pleasant and enjoyable film that does overcome any baggage of being an “Iraq movie.”

Another entertaining doc, only the second one I saw at the festival, was Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood (Magnet), a fascinating look at the Australian genre cinema or “Ozploitation!” scene that thrived in the ’70s, foreshadowing the rise of movies like Mad Max and more recent horror phenoms like Saw and Wolf Creek. Much of the film is narrated by an interview with Quentin Tarantino, gushing about why some of the little-seen movies are classics that must be seen, but the movie is worthwhile for the fascinating anecdotes about making the movies by directors George Miller, Russell Mulcahy and Brian Trenchard-Smith as well as a number of high-brow actresses looking back at their time doing exploitative nude and sex scenes, some with fondness, but mostly not. The first half hour deals with those raunchy sexploitation movies, followed by a half hour of schlock horror classics, and then concluding with some of Australia’s finest action flicks featuring the stunt work of the invincible Grant Page. A smart businessman would develop an Ozploitation film festival around the release of the movie because a lot of people will be dying to see such forgotten “gems” as Razorback, The Man From Hong Kong and Fair Game after seeing this documentary.

Movie writers often talk about great roles that certain actors were born to play, and the role of French gangster Jacques Mesrine in the two-part Public Enemy Number One (Senator) might indeed be Vincent Cassell’s finest moment as an actor, as he goes through a number of amazing transformations to play the infamous criminal over the course of twenty years. In the early ’60s, Mesrine left the military and quickly entered the world of Paris crime, conducting a series of daring bank robberies, then running off to Quebec and became Canada’s biggest menace when he escaped from prison then staged an assault to retriever fellow prisoners. Technically, it’s an amazing film, probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a French “Godfather,” although at times it feels slightly derivative just by the nature of Mesrine’s life, like when he forms an ersatz Bonnie and Clyde with Cécile de France as his partner in crime. (It’s a great character for the French actress and a shame when she leaves the story.) The movie is extremely violent, but it moves at a very fast pace, as the conclusion of Part 1 turns into a typical action movie with lots of shooting and explosions when Mesrine returns to the Canadian prison where he was detained. Much of the jumping around mirrors Mesrine’s own life, which is why it’s a gangster movie one moment and a prison drama the next, but it’s certainly a fascinating biopic unlike anything we’ve seen from France. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long to get a very special sneak preview of the second part of the film, which is still a “work in progress,” but what we saw really blew us away. The second part of the movie is excellent and more than makes up for any shortcomings in Part 1, and the movie as a whole is quite an achievement by Richet and Cassell. Although we don’t generally try to predict French box office here at CS, we have a feeling that Public Enemy Number One is going to be a huge box office hit unlike any that France has seen in a long time when Part 1 is released there on October 22. Part 2 will follow a month later on November 19, but there’s no word yet when Senator will release either part Stateside. Check back for our exclusive interview with Cassel and Richet sometime next month.

South Korea is certainly one of the top purveyors of groundbreaking genre filmmaking in recent years, although few of them have made much of a mark in the United States. Maybe that will change with Kim Jee-Won’s “Kimchi Western” The Good, the Bad, the Weird (IFC Films) starring three of Korea’s top stars in the three title roles. Director Kim made the excellent ghost film A Tale of Two Sisters, which is in the process of being butchered (presumably) by Hollywood. The film is probably his most ambitious yet, being set in 1930′s Mongolia with a production budget of $17 million that makes it Korea’s most expensive film production to date. It’s already grossed a good deal of money over there before playing at this year’s TIFF, and early hype and fanboy sites have made it out to be the greatest Asian film ever made. In fact, following so closely to Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, it’s not quite as funny or original, and it’s clear that “The Weird” AKA Kang-ho Song from The Host steals the movie from his better-looking co- stars who play their parts fairly straight. Sure, there’s some cool stunts and funny gags, but overall, it’s a lot of style and shoot ‘em ups without the storytelling and characters that make the best Westerns so memorable. Many of the film’s best scenes seem deliberately derivative, not just of the Western genre, but also things like “Indiana Jones,” and while a lot of the best scenes need to be seen on the big screen, the overall movie just wasn’t nearly as mindblowing as I’d hoped and expected after all the early praise. That being said, we do have a brief interview with director Kim, which we’ll run whenever IFC decides to release the film domestically.

Is There Anybody There?, the new movie from acclaimed stage director John Crowley (Boy A), is charming enough but it’s light and fairly forgettable fare compared to his past work, mainly driven by the many scenes with screen legend Michael Caine and Bill Milner from Son of Rambow, one of my favorite movies of the year. Wilner plays a boy whose house is turned into an old age home by his squabbling parents, while Caine plays an aging magician who befriends the boy and becomes his mentor. The movie has some strange tonal issues where it’s very dark one moment and light and witty the next because it’s neither straight comedy nor drama, which makes it harder to really get into the tone and feel of it before it changes. Michael Caine is very good, as is Milner, thought it’s not too much of a departure from what we saw from the latter in “Rambow,” but patrons of the old age home often steal the show from the other actors with a number of funny scenes, and David Morrissey has a nice turn as the boys’ father who is suffering a bit of a mid-life crisis as he fancies the much younger nurse at the home. While I do think there’s some potential for this movie to find an older audience and hopefully someone will pick it up for U.S. distribution, it probably would have a somewhat limited audience.

I really have no fondness for Tennessee Williams, whom I find to be one of the most pompous and overrated playwrights whose work has ever been staged, so to find myself enjoying Jodie Markell’s directorial debut The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond even remotely is nothing short of amazing. Much of that comes from the terrific casting of Bryce Dallas Howard, who is almost unrecognizable as Memphis party girl Fisher Willow, who hires her family’s yard hard Jimmy (Chris Evans) to accompany her to all sorts of high society social events during the roaring ’20s. Fisher’s ability to have a good time at these parties is waylaid by the fact that her father has made many enemies among the other local families, creating much tension. The characters and writing are classic Williams, which means it’s a lot of dull Southern stereotypes getting into unlikely situations that few modern-day non-Southerners will be able to relate to. On the other hand, it’s the kind of thing that theater buffs, particularly Williams fans, will swoon over, especially in the way Markell and her terrific production team made an amazing looking film that creates the perfect mood for Williams’ style of storytelling, including a couple shots so gorgeous you’ll let out a gasp. It’s all about the performances though, and as good as the mostly young cast is, it’s Ellen Burstyn who almost steals the movie, while Will Patton also has a great scene with Evans as Jimmy’s drunken father. Fans of Tennessee Williams will welcome this lost work and the way Markell and her cast bring it to life, although I couldn’t ever see this doing much business outside New York, L.A. and other “theater towns.”

Few movies at TIFF disappointed by their lack of story as Michael Winterbottom’s Genova (THINKFilm), starring Colin Firth as a widower who takes his two daughters, played by Willa Holland (the older) and Perla Haney-Jardine (the younger), to Italy after the accidental car crash death of their mother. There, the two girls get into different kinds of trouble, the younger one seeing images of her dead mother (Hope Davis) and the older one discovering Love Italian Style with a local romeo, while trying to keep it a secret. The cast including Catherine Keener as Firth’s amorous colleague does a decent job in this slice of life film, but so little happens for most of the movie, as it tries to build tension that ultimately leads to… again, absolutely nothing. Much of the movie seems to be foreshadowing something bad that’s going to happen to the girls, as if one might get lost or attacked on the city’s streets or get into a motorcycle accident, but none of that happens, since it’s mostly a lot of them playing piano or lounging on the beach or watching the ghost of their dead mother pop up in all sorts of places. It’s almost as if Winterbottom was trying to make his own version of L’ Avventura, only without the mystery or intrigue. Even if Genova isn’t nearly as bad as the almost unwatchable 9 Songs, it’s clearly one of Winterbottom’s lesser works, even if he’s made enough great movies in the last few years that he can be forgiven for one questionable misstep like this plotless experiment.

By comparison, Richard Eyre dropped the ball even worse with The Other Man, a star-studded thriller (of sorts) based on a novella, this one starring Liam Neeson as a man who becomes obsessed with his wife’s ex-lover, played by Antonio Banderas in another scenery-chewing performance. He’s essentially a tuxedo-wearing Spanish stud from Milan who had a long-time affair with Neeson’s wife (Laura Linney), who mysteriously disappears after the film’s opening scene. It’s a beautifully shot film with decent dialogue and gorgeous locations, but exceedingly dull, like watching paint dry, and it doesn’t get better when Neeson sits down to play chess with Banderas, the latter not having any idea who the former is. I mean, seriously, if there was any one way that this movie could have gotten duller, it was to have the two stars face off at the chess table, and it doesn’t get much better from there. This is the kind of dull thriller that’s become Woody Allen’s specialty in recent years, but it’s more of a tragedy than a disappointment following Eyre’s excellent adaptation of Notes on a Scandal, especially considering the amount of talent dragged into what’s generally an uninteresting exercise in dramatic showboating.

My tolerance for Jeff Goldblum tends to run out after 45 minutes so I only lasted about fifteen minutes more for Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected in which Goldblum plays a Jewish entertainer who quite literally was treated like a dog by a Nazi officer, played by long-time Schrader collaborator Willem Dafoe. The film mostly takes place in Israel years later, when Adam has been institutionalized with other survivors of Nazi concentration camps, and it deals with his antics and womanizing ways. Goldblum’s performance is just too strange and eccentric even by his standards and all the jumping back and forth (with the flashbacks shown in black and white), and it really isn’t that much more entertaining than Schrader’s last film The Walker.

Gavin O’Connor’s police drama Pride and Glory (New Line/WB) isn’t much better, and I barely got through its ridiculous two-hour running time. It deals with a family of policemen, including patriarch Francis Tierney Sr., played by Jon Voight, his two sons Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich) and Ray (Edward Norton) and their brother-in-law Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). Much of the tension revolves around the deaths of four policemen on Jimmy’s team and Ray discovering a police corruption ring. The movie has serious pacing problems as many scenes dragged and the movie was shot very poorly with lots of shaky camerawork and bad framing, just inexcusable stuff. Any signs of the strength of writing in Joe Carnahan’s original screenplay was obliterated by the number of writers who worked over the script and a lot of needless subplots like the one involving Emmerich’s cancer-stricken wife could have been excised without any worries, as could the characters who essentially show up for one scene then disappear. Considering how much great police drama there’s been on TV for the last two decades, it’s a shame how badly this one drops the ball, and like in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, the two main actors only appear together a few times, including one of my favorite moment in the film, when Norton finally confronts Farrell (one of only two scenes together) in an Irish pub, and on the jukebox is a couple tunes from local New York Irish rockers The Prodigals, who I worked with once or twice. Recognizing their music immediately was the high point of what was generally a dreary, poorly-made film that wore out its welcome long before it got to that two-hour mark. The movie is just a complete mess, making it blatantly obvious why New Line buried it before it got picked up in the merger with Warner Bros.

So our Top 10 Best of the Fest from this year’s Toronto Film Festival goes something like this:

1. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight – Nov. 28)

2. Rod Lurie’s Nothing But the Truth (Yari Film Group – Dec. 19)

3. Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (Sony Pictures Classics)

4. David Koepp’s Ghost Town (DreamWorks – Sept. 19)

5. Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (seeking distribution)

6. Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud (seeking distribution)

7. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight – Dec. 19)

8. Good (THINKFilm – Dec. ’08)

9. Rian (Brick) Johnson, The Brothers Bloom (Summit – Dec. 19)

10. Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (Summit)

That’s it for this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, although we have many interviews to run over the next few months and a number of full reviews of the movies we’ve discussed. Hopefully, you’ve found some of it helpful in deciding what movies will be worth looking out for in the coming months.

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