The Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) starts in earnest today, and ComingSoon.net has already seen roughly seven of the movies premiering here. While we can’t post full reviews of some of them just yet, because they haven’t yet had their TIFF premieres, we have seen a couple standouts and surprises so far.
So far, the film that has most impressed us is Lone Scherfig’s An Education (Sony Pictures Classics), which played much better on second viewing after having seen it at its Sundance premiere back in January. At this point, there is no question that Carey Mulligan’s performance as Jenny, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who becomes romantically-involved with the significantly-older David (played by Peter Sarsgaard), is outstanding, one that will surely get many heads turning, much like previous ingénue actresses e.g. Ellen Page in Juno, Catalina Sandina Moreno in Maria Full of Grace, Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider. There are lots of great performances around the two of them, most notably Alfred Molina as her old-fashioned father who pushes her to get good grades in order to get into university, but then changes his tune when he meets David, thinking he can provide for her. Those familiar with author Nick Hornby’s novels might be surprised how well he tackles this adaptation as well, mainly because he tends to write so much from a male perspective, yet he takes on this female coming-of-age story with equal amounts of gusto and pathos. What keeps me from absolutely loving the movie is the creepy relationship between David and Jenny that’s hard to get past, even though that’s the central impetus of everything that happens in terms of her arc. I’m confident I’ll have a lot more to write about this movie over the next couple months, especially when we start getting into the awards season proper.
Clive Owen’s performance in Scott (Shine) Hicks’ new drama The Boys are Back (Miramax), based on the novel by Simon Carr, is going to be the main reason for many people to see it, because it really is his best straight dramatic role in some time–probably since Closer?–playing Joe Warr, a sports writer whose life is changed dramatically after his wife dies, forcing him to care for their impetuous young son (Nicholas McAnulty). It’s sometimes hard to watch, especially as the first 15 to 20 minutes deal with the death of his wife from cancer, but also watching him trying to cope as a father while dealing with an inquisitive but tantrum-prone young son is something that many fathers will be able to relate to. Another layer is brought to the story when Joe’s teen son from a previous marriage shows up in Australia, and that allows it to explore other issues of fatherhood, in that case how to reconnect with the son you left behind. There are powerful dramatic elements to this film that are similar to recent movies like Marley & Me and My Sister’s Keeper, the former being based on a journalist’s writings, the latter covering difficult material about dying. What I like about this adaptation is that Hicks never gets too sensationalistic or melodramatic, instead handling the relatively difficult subject matter in a stark and honest way, always being very tasteful and artistic. He also perfectly utilizes the Australian environment as part of the story with equally gorgeous cinematography (by Greig Fraser, who also shot Jane Campion’s filmsee below) and music. None of that would matter if not for the head-turning performance by Owen and a similar breakthrough from Emma Booth, his son’s pretty teacher who becomes his crutch in his efforts at being a parent and a provider. Even without being a parent, it’s obvious how many fathers will be able to watch this movie and relate to the story, because it’s an incredibly powerful and moving film.
You don’t have to be a lover of the poetry of John Keats, but it probably will help to enjoy Jane Campion’s Bright Star (Apparition), a return to the romantic period pieces she first mastered with the Oscar-winning film The Piano. It deals with a romance between Keats and a neighboring girl, played by Abbie Cornish, one that everyone around disapproves of, since he is an impoverished poet who can’t afford to provide for her as a husband. There are certainly elements of the story and film that can be compared favorably to the most recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and the movie clearly belongs to Cornish, a terrific Australian actress who has been quietly delivering powerful performances since the indie Somersault. After seeing her in this and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, there may be some worries Cornish will get stuck in the costume drama ghetto that has confined Keira Knightley for too long, but there’s something about this film that makes it feel more timeless than most period pieces. Another pleasant surprise comes from Paul Schneider as Keats’ Scottish benefactor, friend and collaborator, who is the most disapproving of their relationship, and it makes for a pleasantly unique take on the normal love triangle films we’ve seen in recent years. This is a deeply romantic film on every level that is hard not to be moved by, although it’s certainly not going to be for everyone.
There’s a lot to dig about Tom Hooper’s The Damned United (Sony Pictures Classics), the story of football (i.e. soccer) manager Brian Clough, who took a second level losing team to the top of the rankings in order to take on the nation’s champions Leeds United, beginning a rivalry that escalated as Clough’s team moved up the ranks. Years later, after quitting his job due to conflicts with the owner, Clough pursued the job as manager of Leeds United, his team’s main competition, and quickly found himself running a team of players who despised him and refused to work with him. Michael Sheen (The Queen) plays Clough, and it’s another role that seems perfectly suited for him, much like Tony Blair and David Frost. Sheen just has a way of personifying these public figures, once again working from a script by the great Peter Morgan. Hooper is probably best known for his television work including HBO’s award-winning mini-series “John Adams” and the courtroom drama Longford, which was also written by Morgan, and he does a decent job. My only immediate problem is that it does follow a fairly standard and straight-forward biopic format, despite the time-jumping between 1967 and 1974, and it’s hard to imagine that American non-football fans will be able to appreciate the movie without putting into context of American sports managers who have achieved similar fame and notoriety.
Another nice surprise has been Miguel Arteta’s Youth in Revolt (Dimension Films), starring Michael Cera, a long-delayed adaptation of C.D. Payne’s coming-of-age novel, which we found to be on par with movies like Rocket Science and Eagle vs. Shark in terms of its tone, being funny and dark and quirky but also quite romantic and sweet at times. Some have criticized Cera for basically doing the same thing in every movie and that can’t be said here, as he plays two completely different roles, one that’s so different from what we’ve come to expect that people will be quite shocked. This doesn’t premiere until next week, so hopefully we’ll have time to write more about it soon.
On first viewing, I was somewhat disappointed by Pedro Almodovar’s latest Broken Embraces (Sony Pictures Classics Nov. 20) for reasons that are too complicated to discuss in this format, but much of it seems to be derivative of his own previous work, plus it’s very slow and it takes a long time to get anywhere–and I’m not quite sure if it ever gets to where it hopes to. Sure, it has its moments and a lot of that has to do with how well Almodovar works with Ms. Penelope Cruz (and how beautiful she looks in front of his camera), but we’ll try to get into this one a little more later.
We’ll be holding our opinion on Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! (Warner Bros.) and Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (20th Century Fox) for now, since they’re opening next week and they haven’t yet premiered at the festival. We might post a couple thoughts on them on the CS Twitter Feed later, although we’re going to be fairly busy as today’s line-up includes Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (IFC Films), Jon Amiel’s Creation, the Charles Darwin biopic starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture Films) starring George Clooney and then Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s The Invention of Lying (Warner Bros. Oct. 2).