Toronto Film Festival News

Toronto Film Festival Day 1 Recap

Source: Edward Douglas
September 12, 2009

There are probably better ways to start one's first day at the Toronto International Film Festival than to face the latest from Danish "madman" Lars von Trier, a supernatural thriller called Antichrist (IFC Films), but as a long-time fan of the filmmaker's in-your-face approach to polarizing audiences, it didn't seem right to wait three more weeks until the film played at the New York Film Festival.

Von Trier's introduction to the film in the press notes is foreboding, welcoming the viewer into "the dark world of my imagination: into the nature of my fears, into the nature of Antichrist." It sounds a lot more like a challenge to anyone familiar with Von Trier's style of pushing the envelope, although a couple pages later he's confiding to anyone reading these notes--which will be the minority of regular moviegoers who go see the movie--that he suffered from depression a few years ago.

The premise revolves around a nameless couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who travel to a remote cabin in the woods, a place they call "Eden," in order to work out their issues after the death of their infant son. Dafoe is a therapist who has decided to treat his wife for the side effects of her debilitating grief, but she fights him every step of the way, until he decides that taking her to their well-hidden cabin is the way to work through her fears, particularly of nature. The irony of Von Trier wanting to explore this territory is not lost on anyone who realizes how much of his last three films have been shot indoors, working on vast soundstages.

He's found a great setting to play in this time, a cabin in the middle of a clearing completely surrounded by woods. This vast outdoor environment gives the director a chance to play with a lot of new imagery, and he takes advantage of all of it with these oddly-lit slow motion segments that look almost like moving paintings. Von Trier's sense of creating artistic cinema makes the film gorgeous to watch.

At times, it feels like Von Trier is trying to do his own version of "The Blair Witch Project," though this is more unnerving and haunting than actually scary or shocking. Rather than relying on music to set the tone, Von Trier instead uses odd ambient sound FX which help to create a feeling of foreboding in the viewer where we're never really sure what might happen or what Von Trier will throw our way. Usually, it's nothing that spectacular or interesting though.

Otherwise, much of the film revolves around the ideas of "grief, pain and despair"--all things you might experience yourself while watching it--and the exploration of these ideas is mostly comprised of dialogue scenes between Dafoe and Gainsbourg as they try to work through their issues, a single handheld camera panning between them getting as close as possible. As in the past, Von Trier isn't afraid to show the couple in the throes of intimacy, and there's plenty of full frontal nudity to go around, enough to guarantee the movie could never get anything less than an NC-17, and it would be deserved. Gainsbourg shows absolutely no fear in what Von Trier puts her and Dafoe through for the sake of his art, and however you feel about the subject matter, there's no denying that she joins Bjork and Nicole and Bryce Dallas Howard as actresses who have given unforgettable performances when they make themselves the clay in Von Trier's hands.

The last half hour of the movie goes completely off the reservation in its attempts to shake up the viewer, first by introducing the idea of Satan having an influence over women into the mix, which seems like the most obvious way to go considering the title. In doing so, Von Trier effectively straddles the fence between making a feminist statement while being completely misogynistic, just as one has to marvel over the fact that Von Trier films show so much ugliness in such a beautiful way. The movie then builds to its climax by having the tension between the two characters turn physically violent, including a couple scenes of grotesqueness that will have the viewer turning way. Who knows what Von Trier was trying to achieve with the movie--some sort of catharsis, possibly?--but it's doubtful anyone will want to sit through it a second time to try to figure it out.

After that was done, we made a quick jaunt over to the largest capacity room at the Varsity for the festival's Opening Night Gala, Creation, Jon Amiel's biopic about Charles Darwin starring Paul Bettany and life partner Jennifer Connelly in their first film together since Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind in 2001. (You can watch a new clip from the film here.) It's impossible not to be immediately reminded of Bettany's role in Master and Commander, playing a Darwinist surgeon traveling the world collecting specimens. This was also a strange film to see directly after Antichrist, since the two movies had so many elements in common, you might wonder whether Von Trier is an avid fan of "The Origin of Species."

Sadly, this is a fairly dull biopic, which at its core is about a man writing a book, something it shares in common with the Meryl Streep segments of Julie & Julia. While it does deal with some of the more controversial aspects of Darwin essentially his debunking of God's involvement in creating all the animals, that's not exactly going to make the movie very exciting. Mostly, it explores the writing of the controversial book through Darwin's relationship with his eldest daughter Annie, who eventually succumbs to the illness, leaving him to see visions of her after her passing. Part of the film deals with the lack of proper scientific medicine during that time, something that contributes to Darwin's studies, even as he himself succumbs to the stress involved with researching his book.

Bettany does a competent job with the role, as the film jumps around in time, the amount of hair on his forehead being the key giveaway of where we are in the story. Connelly's part is smaller than you might expect, until the very end where they contend with the loss of their eldest daughter.

The film certainly has potential and Amiel generally does creative things with the visuals such as showing a time-lapsed life cycle in one scene and a couple lovely dream sequences, but it's impossible to ignore that he's dealing with a subject matter that succeeds or fails based solely on the viewer's interest in Darwin's work, because one might find it hard to get very excited about the small slice of Darwin's domestic life this film revolves around. The sad fact is that Darwin came up with some interesting theories about life but didn't have an interesting life to have made a movie about it.

Good Night, And Good Luck was my top movie of 2005, so seeing what that film's co-writer and producer Grant Heslov can do as a director was one of the main selling points for wanting to see the political comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture Films). Of course, the other one will be the fact that it's one of two movies at TIFF that stars Mr. George Clooney, the other being Jason Reitman's Up in the Air. (Which we'll write up in our Day 2 recap.)

The premise behind the movie is a strange one, involving a secret military operation to train soldiers to take out their enemies using only their minds. Ewan McGregor plays a Michigan reporter who runs off to Iraq after losing his wife and meets Clooney's Lynn Cassidy, a spaced-out former soldier who claims to still have all sorts of extra-sensory abilities that he used while in the service. Most of the film acts like a buddy road comedy as these two travel through the war-torn Iraq of 2003 having encounters and trying to find the long-missing founder of the movement, Jeff Bridges' Bill Django, regularly flashing back to the development of Django's New Earth Army, peace-loving troops being trained to end wars rather than fight them.

The general tone of the movie is reminiscent of the recent movies of Richard Shepard (The Matador, The Hunting Party) - witty, quirky and clever humor with a stronger script from Peter Straughn than How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, working from Jon Ronson's book. It's always entertaining to see Clooney playing against type, although Lynn isn't quite as zany as any of Clooney's characters with the Coens. As funny as Clooney is, Bridges really kills it, not that playing a drugged-out peace-loving hippy is much of a challenge for the actor who regularly is called upon for that type of role. Kevin Spacey also shows up in the flashbacks as Clooney's main competition, a charlatan who doesn't have nearly as much natural powers as Lynn.

By the end, it becomes clear why Heslov and Clooney chose to tell this story, as its anti-war message starts to become more evident, especially when we see Iraqi prisoners being tortured and abused. Even so, this isn't an Iraq movie that tries to hit you over the head with its message, and overall, it's an amusing film (albeit in spurts) that's able to keep the viewer entertained, even if Armando Iannucci's In the Loop is a hard act to follow for any politically-tinged comedy.

The last film of the day was Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson's The Invention of Lying (Warner Bros.), which required a ride on Toronto's fabulous subway system down to the National Film Board Screening Room. Thankfully, TIFF has graciously provided press with their own personal Transit Card, which allows us unlimited rides on the city's transit system for the entirety of the festival. This was a nice surprise and a great luxury for someone who tends to travel a lot via mass transit during the visit.

The movie itself probably could have been better, because the production values leave something to be desired--this is a fairly bland and ordinary-looking film--and it doesn't take long for it to expend its high concept premise of a world where everyone tells the truth, except Ricky's character Mark, a screenwriter who has figured out how to lie and quickly uses it to his advantage. The plot involves him trying to get together with the lovely Anna, played by Jennifer Garner, but not being up to her standards, he finds himself having to settle for being friends. Even once Mark figures out all the things he can achieve by lying--because no one has ever done it before, everyone believes everything they're told--he can never get himself to lie to Anna to win her over.

Gervais and Robinson use the concept of a world with no lies to explore a couple clever ideas like how advertising might work if it were to be truthful. The premise really starts to gel when Mark effectively creates religion by telling the world about the "Man in the Sky" and his plans for everyone. It's a very funny scene that plays to the strengths of Gervais' stand-up act where he's able to interact with his audience. (It's also funny to watch this sequence after watching the earlier Creation, since that's a movie about a man who effectively debunked the existence of a higher power.)

If you like Ricky Gervais' sense of humor and delivery, you'll probably be fine with him in this movie although performance-wise, it's not quite up there with his television shows or even David Koepp's Ghost Town. Garner on the other hand does give a well-rounded performance, being able to do dry humor but also showing real emotion when necessary. Otherwise, both Tina Fey and Rob Lowe have some funny moments, but both of them are underused, never appearing in the film long enough to really make much of an impact. Jonah Hill and Louis C.K. on the other hand are given fairly meaty roles as Mark's best friend and suicidal neighbor, but neither really proves themselves to be up to the task.

Otherwise, Gervais' fans will probably forgive some of the weaker moments and the extended lulls that plague the film, although this is clearly not the movie that will finally break him through to the non-cable crowd. Essentially, it's an okay film with a funny premise that offers enough laughs to excuse the weaker direction that makes it more obvious what Steven Merchant has brought to the table in terms of Gervais' shows. (We had hoped to talk to Gervais next week while he's in Toronto, because we haven't spoken to him since we visited the set of the movie last May, but that doesn't look likely at this point.)

On Day 2 (which is now over as of this writing), we kicked things off with the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man (Focus Features) and Jason Reitman's Up in the Air (DreamWorks), a couple interviews and then we saw Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane, starring James Purefoy, and then tried to see Tony Jaa's action sequel Ong Bak 2: The Beginning.




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