The 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is pretty much over and after traipsing up and down the precarious stairways of the Scotiabank Theater, marveling at the shiny new BELL Lightbox and lining up for the packed houses at the Ryerson for much of last week, we have seen all the movies we could possibly see. Although the first weekend of TIFF was crazy busy with movies and interviews for films that came to the festival with distribution in place, the second half of the festival mainly featured movies looking for distribution. Some of them were promptly picked up, often before the dust had settled on their premiere, as this year’s festival was declared one of the most lucrative one for film sales.
We generally don’t see a lot of docs at film festivals and while Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” was the best of the ones we saw, coming in at a close second was Thom Zimny’s The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, which is pretty much what it promises (ha ha), an in-depth look at Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, the follow-up to his 1975 breakout hit “Born to Run.” (Zimny previously made a film about the making of that record.) The film ably captures the times of the then-27-year-old singer/songwriter and soon-to-be rock legend as he dealt with the stresses of success and lawsuits and trying to deliver a difficult album that many people were eyeing closely to see if Springsteen could deliver again. Seeing Springsteen in the studio at that young of an age may be enough for many of his fans to thrill at the thought of this movie, and there are plenty of goosebump moments like when Bruce is singing a few ideas to his long-time sideman, saxophonist Clarence Clemmons. You don’t think much about it as they’re working through it until it cuts to the beginning of that amazing sax solo in “Badlands” and you immediately understand the significance of the never-seen footage. There are many moments like that including one in which Bruce and Steven Van Zandt jam at a piano on an upbeat song that will never make it onto “Darkness.” (In fact, Springsteen would pull together the album’s 10 tracks from reportedly 70 or more songs written, many which ended up on “The River” and outtakes records.) Apparently, the film will be shown on HBO on October 8, and it’s worth catching regardless of whether you’re a fan or not–I fall into the latter category–because it does give you some idea of the genius of Springsteen that may not always have been apparent to the uninitiated.
I first heard that director Michael Winterbottom was reuniting Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for a BBC television show when I interviewed him for his recent thriller The Killer Inside Me, but the results of editing down the six one-hour shows into a roughly two hour film is much better than I could have ever expected. The Trip is a real movie with a story and character arcs and though it poses as a documentation of the duo’s road trip through the north of England, eating at fancy restaurants and checking out various locales, it’s more about their friendship and their contrasting careers, creating something full of poignancy as well as many laugh out loud moments. Like some of Winterbottom’s previous work with Coogan, it shows another side of the comic actor that we don’t often see, and though it’s done tongue-in-cheek, you can tell there really are elements from Coogan’s life in there, mostly seen via phone calls to his L.A. girlfriend, manager and such while trying to keep from being driven crazy by Brydon and his non-stop impressions. If you’ve seen Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, then you know how hilarious these two comics are once they start ribbing each other. Here’s hoping someone picks this up and it’s given a theatrical release so it’ll be taken more seriously than just as an “edited-down TV show.”
Another terrific doc that got a lot of attention at TIFF was Errol Morris’ Tabloid, which takes a very different turn for the filmmaker, getting away from the politics of his last few movies and getting into territory closer to Dan Klores’ excellent Crazy Love. In this case, it tells the story of Joyce McKinney, a budding model and actress who traveled to London to kidnap her ex-boyfriend she was convinced was brainwashed by the Mormon Church, took him to a remote house in the countryside, tied him to a bed and proceeded to have her way with him. Things from there escalate mainly due to the exposure McKinney starts to get in the London tabloids, who scramble to get every salacious detail about the “Manacled Mormon” and the woman who loved him, maybe a little too much. It’s an interesting character study with McKinney being an entertaining subject even if she’s clearly insane, Morris often allowing her to cheerily ramble on about everything and anything, knowing full well audiences will eat it up.
I really dug I Saw the Devil, the new film from Korean filmmaker Ji-Woon Kim (The Good, The Bad and the Weird, A Tale of Two Sisters), but I mainly liked it for the craftsmanship in the filmmaking and the performances and had some serious reservations about the amount of brutal no-holds-barred violence. You see, the movie is about a brutal killer, played by Old Boy star Min-sik Choi, who rapes his female victims, but one of them is the fiancée of the government agent (Byung Hun-Lee a.k.a. G.I. Joe‘s Storm Shadow), who takes it upon himself to get vigilante vengeance on her killer, creating an ongoing conflict between the two men. I’ll write more about that one on ShockTillYouDrop.com.
One of the nicest surprises at TIFF had to be Max Winkler’s Ceremony, an indie version of Wedding Crashers with a varied ensemble cast that’s produced by TIFF’s prodigal son Jason Reitman, with the films of Wes Anderson being a good entry point wondering if it’s for them. Michael Angarano and Reece Thompson from Jeffrey Blitz’s Rocket Science are Sam and Marshall, estranged friends who plan to make up for lost years by spending a weekend hanging in the Hamptons. It turns out that Sam has ulterior motives for the weekend and that’s to crash the wedding of his significantly older flame Zoe, played by Uma Thurman. Normally, one wouldn’t believe that pairing 23-year-old Angarano and 40-year-old Thurman could possibly work, but this is one of Angarano’s best roles (and his first truly adult role) and he really pulls it off, while Thompson is just as likeable in his role as the mild-mannered friend roped in by his friend’s lies. Lee Pace has a funny supporting role as Zoe’s fiancé, a pretentious nature documentarian that could have easily been played by someone like Russell Brand, and Jake Johnson from Paper Heart plays her troubled brother, both adding to the overall tone of the movie. Personally, I’m kind of surprised this hasn’t been picked up yet, especially with Jason Reitman’s involvement, because it certainly has a solid cast and a lot of potential audience appeal.
Saw co-creator James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s reunion for the horror movie Insidious was a terrific surprise as it’s probably one of the duo’s best developed horror film to date, once again wearing their influences on their sleeve with Poltergeist and The Exorcist being the most obvious ones. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play parents whose eldest son mysteriously lapses into a coma for months and then odd things start happening inside their house. Without giving too much away, it goes into some pretty crazy places that are reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell in terms of being able to deliver creepy and scary moments but maintaining a tongue-in-cheek feel that allows the audience to have fun while watching the movie. Certainly the midnight audience at the Ryerson Theater ate it up, and there were more than a few people jumping and not due to the type of cheap jump scares that tend to be commonplace in horror movies these days but due to some very cool visual ideas. Insidious certainly shows a lot more promise for this duo than what we’ve seen from them post-Saw, although admittedly, I liked Dead Silence ’cause it was so strange.
As a long-time fan of Takashi Miike, the man behind movies like Audition and the original One Missed Call, and being that samurai films are my favorite film genre, I was very much looking forward to seeing what the Japanese cult film director could do with the genre in 13 Assassins. It’s a faithful and traditional look at the Edo region at a time when Japan was at peace and most samurai swords were used merely for decoration, but the ruthless behavior of one particular lord brings a group of men together to plan his assassination. It starts out fairly slow, and it’s often hard to keep track of all the characters and subplots, but it all builds to one of the most fantastic battles you’re likely to see in the last half hour. Despite one or two moments that remind us we’re watching a movie from Japan’s premiere genre director, the film otherwise could have easily fit in with anything directed by Kurosawa, since it’s such a starring war epic at its core. Sadly, Japan has already selected another film for Oscar consideration so we won’t be seeing Miike walking the red carpet at the Oscars, which certainly would have been a momentous moment for his many fans.
I’m not going to say a lot about Jim Mickle and Nick Amici’s Stake Land here, since I want to write more about it over on ShockTillYouDrop.com, but if you can imagine a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the “Blade” movies, you can get some idea how this very different take on vampires is able to stand out from the pack. It won the Audience Award for the “Midnight Madness” track over Insidious, so you can only imagine how strong a movie it must be.
John Cameron Mitchell’s third film Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate) is about as different from Short Bus as that was from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but being a heavy drama about a couple, played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, trying to cope with the death of their young son in a hit-and-run incident 8 months earlier makes it seem like a much harder sell to audiences than Lionsgate must have thought when they bought it. As one might expect, it’s slow and somewhat dour with a lot of dialogue scenes, though there are some lighter moments, mostly involving Aaron Eckhart’s relationship with Sandra Oh, a woman at their support group. Nicole Kidman’s performance is a standout, one of her best in many years, and Eckhart is also quite good, though I was equally impressed by newcomer Miles Teller as the teenager responsible for their son’s death. He begins a platonic relationship with Kidman, and surprisingly, he holds his own against the far more experienced actress. In some ways, it’s similar to Ceremony in that the age difference between the two isn’t as bothersome as some might expect. The movie won’t be for everyone, but clearly, many of my colleagues have absolutely loved it, maybe a little more than they should have, because other than the performances, there’s nothing particularly unique or special about the film compared to similar dramas except that it is so different from what we’ve seen from Mitchell before, and it shows he’s more than capable of directing material he didn’t generate.
Stephen Frears’ Tamara Drewe (Sony Pictures Classics – Oct. 8) starring Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper and an impressive ensemble cast is not the type of movie one might expect to see from Frears. Frankly, it’s more like the type of “female-oriented” flick one might see from Gurinder Chadha or Nancy Meyers, yet there’s so much of Frears’ acerbic and dry humor that it works well as a follow-up to his previous film Cheri. It involves a farmland writer’s retreat run by a famous mystery writer, whose marriage is falling apart due to his indiscretions with younger women. At that point, a sexy entertainment journalist–the title character played by Arterton–returns to spend time at her family’s home estate, causing even more commotion. Dominic Cooper plays the poncy drummer of a popular band who has an ardent teen admirer living in the small town, and when he turns up as Tamara’s boyfriend, the girl decides to get revenge on her competition by causing all sorts of trouble. The petty fights of authors and the countryside setting reminded me of The Eclipse, one of my favorite movies of the year, and while it’s not perfect–often delving into physical and bathroom humor for easy laughs–its certainly on par with Frears’ previous film, and it’s nice seeing him remaining in the realm of light-hearted mainstream films rather than returning immediately to the serious dramas he’s done so well. For such a British film, it’s somewhat ironic that the sole American character tends to have the funniest lines and scenes, but there’s enough laughs in this somewhat erratic ensemble comedy to make it a bonafide crowdpleaser.
Along with Ceremony, another promising debut was that of Jonathan Sobol with A Beginner’s Guide to Endings, literally the very last movie we caught at TIFF at its Gala Premiere at the Roy Thomson Hall. Harvey Keitel plays the father of five sons (two illegitimate through affairs) living on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, who one day commits suicide and in his will, tells his three eldest sons, played by Jason Jones, Scott Caan and Paulo Costanzo (from USA’s “Royal Pains”), that they’re going to die soon from experimental drugtesting he did when they were younger. It’s a rather strange premise that allows for many funny moments, including many funny lines from the always-great J.K. Simmons as the boy’s preacher uncle. Sobol’s visual influences are pretty obvious, mostly the Coen Brothers and Guy Ritchie, but he’s not quite on par with either of them as a storyteller, though there’s enough originality in the movie that it’s hard not to take notice of this rising talent.
Having won three awards at the Venice Film Festival, Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing starring Vincent Gallo came to TIFF with a chip on its shoulder that many a critic was waiting to knock off. Gallo is not exactly an actor who could be deemed a popular favorite among critics, but in the movie’s favor, he never speaks once, which makes it immediately more appealing than all Gallo’s previous films combined. Gallo plays an Afghan insurgent captured by American forces and sent to a Guantanamo-like facility, but when the transport carrying him veers off the road, he escapes and finds himself in the middle of a Polish forest in the middle of winter. It’s a stirring film about survival that follows the silent Afghan as he tries to evade his pursuers while eating whatever he’s able to find in the stark environment. There is one particularly unsettling scene that’s so disturbing and divisive, almost as much as anything in I Saw the Devil, that it immediately sent nearly a dozen people packing from the press screening. Even so, Skolimowski does such an amazing job capturing the snow-covered Polish forests and mountains where the main character finds himself that it’s hard not to be fully engaged by his predicament.
One of the films I was really looking forward to seeing at TIFF was John Sayles’ Amigo, having inadvertently “broken” the very existence of the project while it was filming under the title “Baryo” last year. While I wasn’t a fan of Honeydripper or Silver City, as a long time fan of Sayles’ work, I was interested in seeing how he would tackle a war film. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but there’s no denying Sayles is one of the most daring and original filmmakers out there. The thought of him making a movie about the American-Philippines War, but doing so from the viewpoint of the natives, essentially depicting the Americans as the bad guys, is not something you could ever expect from any other filmmaker. In fact, you might be hard-pressed to think of any other Western film that’s been made in the Philippines, but there’s no question that the local actors Sayles pulled together are terrific. In general, they are the best reason to see the movie, and their scenes with the American actors including longtime Sayles collaborator Chris Cooper and Yul Vazquez as a condescending missionary are terrific. Many of the subplots with the actors playing the younger American soldiers, who aren’t as strong as their Filipino counterparts, seem fairly pointless to the overall story, and the film just feels very long. Maybe if Sayles worked with an editor (rather than doing it himself), they may have stepped forward and suggested a few trims to make the film flow better. Some of the subplots involving the American soldiers seem unnecessary to the overall story. Even so, if this movie was made 60 years ago, it would be a shoe-in for an Oscar Best Picture nomination and be considered a classic, because Sayles certainly seems to like making films that hark back to the days of Gone with the Wind, which unfortunately, is not something that would necessarily appeal to modern younger audiences who might be able to appreciate learning about this little-known blemish on American history.
Similarly, Werner Herzog’s first foray into 3D technology, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (IFC), is another movie that garnered a lot of interest at the fest, not just due to Herzog’s rep as a documentary filmmaker but also due to the subject matter, which goes into the Chauvet caves of Southern France to film the oldest recorded cave paintings sealed for thousands of years among animal bones and other indicators of early man. Like Herzog’s previous film Encounters at the End of the World, “Cave” offers something you’re not likely to have seen otherwise, giving you a look at the origins of man, but there’s only so many times you can look at the same primitive cave paintings over and over before it becomes tiring. Because of that, it’s not quite Herzog’s best doc offering, although his usual quirkiness is on full display as he interviews scientists and convinces them to give him a demonstration of a bone flute and how to throw a spear, then it ends with one of the oddest postscripts we’ve seen in any doc… ever.
Having enjoyed Alex Gibney’s doc Casino Jack and the United States about the crooked career of “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff, I was interested in seeing how George Hickenlooper handled the same material in his dramatic take on events in Casino Jack with Kevin Spacey as Abramoff. The story of how Abramoff stole money from Native American casino owners with promises of getting them access to the highest politicians in D.C. and how he swayed the same politicians with free trips and by funding their campaigns is an interesting one, so it’s surprising how dull this movie is. I may not have even understood a lot of the stuff that happens earlier in the film if I hadn’t seen Gibney’s film beforehand, but in general, the material isn’t handled in a nearly as interesting or entertaining way as Gibney did in his doc. Spacey doesn’t do much to try to make Abramoff seem anything more than Spacey being Spacey, throwing in an abundance of impersonations and film references throughout. The movie does get more into Abramoff’s personal life and that of his right-hand man Michael Scanlon, played by Barry Pepper, but the movie seems like an “Entourage”-inspired take on D.C. lobbyists, and in fact, the movie would probably play better as an HBO film than with moviegoers.
There was a lot of hubbub earlier in the week about the Weinstein Company picking up the distribution rights to choreographer Abe Sylvia’s Dirty Girl before its first press screening at TIFF, which placed the movie firmly in the same “show me” category as a number of other films later in the fest. Dirty Girl stars Juno Temple as Danielle, the “school slut” who is paired with Jeremy Dozier’s Clarke, a closeted gay teenager, in a school project, and together, they go on a road trip to find her father who deserted her family after she was born. The entire tone of the movie was aggravating, because it wasn’t particularly funny, and watching the movie so soon after having seen Will Gluck’s far superior Easy A didn’t help the movie’s case at all. The movie isn’t a complete disaster as Milla Jovovich and Mary Steenburgen are both solid as Danielle and Clarke’s respective mothers, but when the movie ends with Danielle singing “Don’t Cry Out Loud” at the school talent show, you’re likely to roll your eyes far back into your head for taking such a predictable route in ending things. Oddly, audiences seemed to love this movie, which makes me think Harvey Weinstein has been able to find something marketable in this movie that may not be apparent to me, although to us, it felt like little more than a vanity project by Sylvia that will have limited appeal otherwise.
Two of the Midnight Madness movies that just didn’t work for us at all were Brad Anderson’s The Vanishing on 7th Street and John Carpenter’s The Ward, though we’ll discuss those further over on ShockTillYouDrop.com.
There were plenty of movies I wanted to see but missed due to scheduling (and fearing burnout) including Greg Araki’s Kaboom, the Miramax drama The Debt with Helen Mirren, the highly-lauded British film Submarine and others, all of which will hopefully be worth the wait once they arrive in theaters.
That just leaves us with our yearly tradition of listing our…
Best of the Fest
(You can read more about all of these both above and in our previous update.)
1. 127 Hours
3. Black Swan
4. The Promise: The Making of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”
7. The Trip
10. (tie) The Housemaid and I Saw the Devil
A definite high point for me this year, besides hanging out with all my wonderful colleagues in the biz from New York and L.A. and elsewhere (and I say that without a hint of sarcasm!), is finally meeting actor Yul Vazquez, whom I interviewed over the phone four years ago and whose amazing photo blog I’ve been admiring for months. I was delighted to discover he was every bit as cool as I expected from chatting with him on Twitter!
That’s pretty much it for us and the Toronto International Film Festival, although you can expect more full reviews of the movies we’ve seen as we get to them, and check out ShockTillYouDrop.com later this week for a recap of the horror films and thrillers that screened at TIFF.