The first day of TIFF was a slower one, but then the second one a bit busier. Here are a few brief thoughts on some of the movies we saw with fuller reviews to come. Hopefully, you already read our review of Ben Affleck’s Argo (Warner Bros.) here, but on Day 1 we also saw Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone (Sony Pictures Classics – November 16) and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (Focus Features November 16). Day 2, we caught Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, the Australian period musical The Sapphires (The Weinstein Company), the British horror film (Of sorts) Berberian Sound Studio (IFC Films), and finally the World Premiere of David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s What Maisie Knew, starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan and Alexander Skargard.
I’ve been a big fan of French filmmaker Jacques Audiard from his earlier films Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, so we weren’t too surprised that our very first official film at TIFF, Rust & Bone, contiues that streak. This unconventional romance gives Audiard another chance to show off his ability to create powerful drama by combining a number of seemingly disparate elements as it follows the relationship between Ali and Stephanie, played by Matthias Schoenarts (Bullhead) and Marion Cotillard, who meet at the club where he works as a bouncer when she gets into a fight there. Ali is trying to make ends meet as he tries to take care of his young son, while she works as a trainer of killer whales at Marineland. When she loses her legs in a grisly accident, he feels obligated to help her literally get back on her feet, as he starts taking part in underground fight club matches. It’s another beautifully shot film by Audiard with another fantastic performance by Marion Cotillard that seems destined for more awards consideration.
We were really looking forward to Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina, which reunites him with Keira Knightley after Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, but they tried to do something different with it and it ends up being a big mess. Apparently trying to make his own Moulin Rouge!, Wright stages most of the Russia-based love story on large soundstages with elaborate productions that look pretty, but it’s impossible to figure out who anyone is as they’re introduced in rapid succession in the first ten minutes and when the second half settles down as she returns to the quieter St. Petersburg, it seems more concerned about changing Knightley’s costumes every few minutes than creating cohesive drama. The whole film is just all over the place from the nearly unbearable wacky opening to the grueling dullness of the second half. Granted, many of the problems may come from the original source material and maybe fans of Tolstoy’s novel will appreciate it, but those hoping for another Pride & Prejudice may be even more sorely disappointed than I was.
We were more than a little tentative about Harmony Korine’s latest, Spring Breakers, having not really enjoyed much of his last few movies, but he’s created a surprisingly mainstream art film full of so much sex, drugs, nudity and guns that it’s hard to really hate it. It stars his wife Rachel, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Selena Gomez as as a group of girls who travel down to St. Petersburg, Florida for spring break and get into all sorts of trouble. Gomez plays the aptly-named Faith, a highly religious Christian girl while the other three already robbed a restaurant in order to get money for the trip, so we know they’re trouble. When the foursome gets arrested for partying too hard (no, seriously!), they’re bailed out by James Franco as a drug dealer/rapper known as “Alien” and it’s a match made in heaven as the three blondes become his drug molls. There isn’t a lot of story at play here, but there’s actually a more coherent narrative than most of Korine’s films and the crazy character played by Franco is so hilarious and entertaining that it can’t be completely written off. It’ll be interesting to see what audiences think of it, because while it’s Korine’s most commercial film to date, it still retains the artistic soul that may throw off mainstream audiences while also not having the depth expected from art films. Either way, it’s Korine’s first movie in many years that won’t end up on our Terrible 25, so that’s something, right?
Later on Friday we caught the Australian musical drama The Sapphires, a rather original take on a fairly standard movie musical trope, this one involving four Aboriginal sisters who form a singing group to perform soul music for the troops in Vietnam. Already picked up by the Weinstein Company for a yet-to-be-determined release date, it’s a real crowdpleaser that tends to uses the realities of Australia’s “stolen generation” when the lighter-skinned Aboriginals were abducted and conditioned into white society to explore racism during the ’60s and the identity crisis felt by some of the Aboriginals who went through this ordeal. Chris O’Dowd from “Bridesmaids” plays the group’s manager who brings a lot of humor and warmth to the film as well as offering a nice second half romance with one of the sisters. The drama’s a bit forced and the whole thing feels a bit manipulative and by-the-books, but the killer soundtrack of classic soul songs and the sisters’ marvelous performances really make the movie shine.
The psychological “horror” film Berberian Sound Studio, directed by Peter Strickland, stars Toby Jones as a British sound engineer who travels to Italy to work on a horror movie with most of the film taking place inside the recording studio. It’s a virtual love letter to the sound FX and Foley artists of yesteryear as well as the Italian Giallo B-horror movies from the likes of Argento and Bava. It never actually shows any of the horrifying scenes in the movie by the eccentric filmmaker, instead showing Jones and others doing the sound FX of stabbings and hackings and the like.The movie is plenty weird and creepy–at times, it reminded us of last year’s Beyond the Black Rainbow–but it involves a lot of Toby Jones being creeped out by his job or getting into conflict with his producer and though it often goes off the wall into WTF territory, it never really pays off. By the time it ended, we were only slightly freaked out, mostly confused, and mostly disappointed that Strickland didn’t do more with such a cool concept.
The last movie of Day 2 was What Maisie Knew, the new drama from The Deep End directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee, which looks at a bitter divorce through the eyes of a young girl named Maisie. A modernized version of the Henry James novel, this is a really special film told almost entirely from the viewpoint of this girl, who experiences her parents’ split and then finds herself being shunted back and forth between them. Julianne Moore plays Maisie’s musician mother who is already fighting with her father, played by Steve Coogan, as the film opens, but once they break up, the court gives them shared custody over their daughter Maisie, except that they’re both very busy and Maisie ends up being neglected. The entire film is told from Maisie’s point of view, and boy, Siegel and McGehee found quite an amazing young star in Onata Aprile, who literally has to carry the movie but also brings the best out of the likes of Moore, whose character is very bitchy throughout the movie with very few saving graces, as well as Alexander Skarsgard’s Lincoln, her mother’s new boyfriend. Meanwhile, her father hooks up with the au pair Margo, played by Joanna Vanderham, another new face who really delivers a strong performance. The film covers a lot of ground, often jumping forward in time, but never losing sight that it’s all about Maisie and how seemingly normal events to adult might be seen by this impressionable young girl.
That’s all for now but look for fuller reviews of some of the above in the next few days as well as reviews of The Master, The Impossible, Cloud Atlas and more.