We’re kicking off our Toronto coverage with a few short reviews, one of a movie we saw at Sundance and two that made waves and won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and are now following through with a run through the Autumn festival season. We can probably find things in common between them but the important one is that they all have one jury prizes at their respective festivals, and the last of them has already been declared Austria’s entry into the Academy Awards even though it’s entirely in French.
Smashed (Sony Pictures Classics – October 12)
Directed by James Ponsoldt; Written by James Ponsoldt, Susan Burke
Starring Aaron Paul, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer, Megan Mullaly
Filmmaker James Ponsoldt’s (“Off the Black”) second feature film could be seen as a modern look at how 20-something people today treat excessive drinking like it’s something normal and how social drinking aversely affects one married couple who always take it to excess.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, a schoolteacher married to Charlie, a music writer played by Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad,” living in an unnamed section of California and enjoying their lives to the fullest. The drinking is clearly starting to affect Kate’s life, though, and when she tries to face her kindergarten class with a ranging hangover, things go horribly wrong and that’s the beginning of her problems, since she covers it up by saying that she’s pregnant. Things get even further out of hand as she gets behind the wheel of a car while drunk to give a ride to a woman who convinces her to smoke crack. When she wakes up the next morning in a deserted lot by the water, she realizes that she needs to get sober, something she does with the help of a co-worker and a sponsor, played by Octavia Spencer (“The Help”). Meanwhile, Charlie keeps drinking making it harder for Kate to get sober while around him.
We’re big fans of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her underrated ability to deliver deadpan lines in a funny way and handle more dramatic material, and this feels like the role that gives her the chance to really fly. Kate is the definition of an obnoxious drunk and Winstead’s portrayal of someone that out of control gets grating at times. We know that it’s wrong to laugh but it’s also hard not to since Kate’s out of control is funny at times… or maybe we’re just laughing at the awkardness of the situations. That’s actually one of the things about “Smashed” that’s intriguing in the barometer it creates in what the audience will find funny.
Aaron Paul offers a certain presence due to awareness of his work on “Breaking Bad,” but he plays Charlie a bit more low-key, allowing Winstead to take point. It’s hard to tell if Charlie is the main source of Kate’s problem or if he honestly wants to see Kate get better, but that plays a large factor in the second half of movie – whether Kate can ever get better while around Charlie. (You actually feel bad for him when she falls off the wagon and blows up at him.)
Ponsoldt makes some interesting casting choices such as having Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) playing a more serious role as the vice principal of Kate’s school who notices she has a problem and convinces her to go to AA. He plays it very seriously although he also delivers one of the funniest moments in the film during an awkward moment where he lets Kate know he’s attracted to her. Similarly, Megan Mullaly plays the principal who is really pushing for Kate when she learns she’s pregnant, but she plays down the comedy as well.
Ponsoldt is quite an able director at getting the most out of his actors although the movie’s lower budget is given away by somewhat haphazard production values. “Smashed” certainly isn’t going to be for everyone because trying to mix a serious issue suffered by many with darker humor might make it a tougher sell for some – it may even strike too close to home. That aside, it works well as a character piece, mainly due to Ponsoldt’s handling of the material and Winstead’s memorable portrayal of an alcoholic trying to regain control.
The Hunt (Magnolia Pictures)
Written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing
Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg hasn’t been particularly consistent with his choices in subject matter and the quality of filmmaking since getting attention for his 1998 film “The Celebration,” a film that’s considered groundbreaking for its use of handheld video cameras. Vinterberg’s latest is a step back in the right direction in large part due to the tougher subject matter and the wise move to cast Mads Mikkelsen in a key role.
“The Hunt” opens with a group of middle-aged men skinny-dipping, lifelong friends who often go hunting and drinking together, showing off their camaraderie. One of them is Mads Mikkelsen’s Lucas, a kindergarden teacher who gets along great with the kids and walks his best friend Theo’s daughter Klara to school every day. When he learns the girl has a crush on him, he tries to let her down gently but she in turn tells the principal that Lucas exposed himself to her. Word soon gets to the other teachers and they realize that they have to suspend Lucas but the rumors spread fast to other parents, including Klara’s, and suddenly there’s a witchhunt to find other kids who Lucas may have abused. We watch how one little girl’s fib escalates into gossip that quickly destroys Lucas’ life, including his relationship with his estranged son.
This isn’t the first time pedophilia has been tackled in such a direct way in a film”Little Children” and “The Woodsman” immediately come to mindbut Vinterberg creates a very real situation in which the audience knows the truth but no one else seems willing to listen, so Lucas is being persecuted by everyone he meets, even his closest friends who’ve known him for years.
This is another one of Mads Mikkelsen’s finer moments as an actor, up there with “After the Wedding,” the original “Pusher” and others, because he creates a rich three-dimensional character, a simple man placed in a situation that allows him to experiment with a range of emotions – fear, confusion, paranoia. Similarly, the young actress playing Klara is quite extraordinary in her expressiveness while portraying such a difficult role, holding her own against the Danish veteran.
The way their relationship unfolds over the course of the film is one of the aspects of it that goes beyond the film merely being a “Straw Dogs”-like thriller to show how far one man can be pushed.
Even though we know why Klara did what she did, there are certain points when you’re not even sure yourself whether Lucas may have done what they’re accusing him of, since that’s how the lies grow and permeate the people around him. It’s even hinted that maybe someone in Klara’s family may have been abusing the girl, but we never get a big reveal where someone confesses.
“The Hunt” is a fascinating portrait of how far one man can fall when confronted with doubt from even the closest friend around him and the scariest part of Vinterberg’s thriller–his best movie in years–is that one can easily see something like this happening in our own environment as easily as it does in this tight community.
Amour (Sony Pictures Classics)
Written and directed by Michael Haneke
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Thanks to his highly ambitious and effective “The White Ribbon,” everyone is back in love with Austrian director Michael Haneke, and who can blame them? That intriguing pre-WWI mystery set in a small German village was a masterpiece and maybe it isn’t too surprising that the often controversial 70-year-old filmmaker might be interested in exploring his own mortality with his latest film.
After a prologue that shows the police breaking into a seemingly abandoned apartment, we’re brought back into the home of Georges and Anne, an 80-year-old couple, both musicians and teachers, who have been happily married for decade. One breakfast, she just stops responding to him and we cut to months later when she’s being brought back into their vast apartment in a wheelchair, having suffered from an early stage of dementia that leaves her partially paralyzed. Georges promises to her that she won’t be hospitalized and we watch as he cares for him herself as her condition deteriorates. Early on, we see that Georges is fairly short-tempered and one wonders whether he has the patience to watch the woman he loves go through such changes.
At first, it’s hard not to be reminded of Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival a couple years back, but that was a very different movie and in some ways, seems to achieve everything Haneke was trying to do with “Amour.” Here, he seems to be back in “Caché” mode where his camera is there to capture every day lives of people put into extreme situation, but unlike that film, this one will resonate with anyone who has watched elderly parents or grandparents going through the similar realities of aging.
It’s a tough subject matter for sure, but there’s no denying that what works about it is Haneke’s two leads, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, two veteran French actors, neither whom have appeared in much over the last nine years. They clearly bring their own feelings of mortality to the roles but Riva really has to put herself through a dramatic physical transformation that’s amazing to watch. Isabelle Huppert, one of France’s finest actresses who we’ll never forget from Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” takes a more supportive role as their daughter who is deservedly worried about her parents.
Haneke and his cast go a long way to bring authenticity to this situation, but it’s hard to deny that watching someone die over the course of two hours is fairly dull and depressing. Since we already know the outcome of the story from the opening sequence, there’s no real suspense or tension of where things are going.
The film just doesn’t feel particularly ambitious for Haneke following “White Ribbon” and for a movie called “Love,” that emotion is not something outwardly shown except for the fact that Georges is caring for his wife.
It’s certainly not a movie that will leave you feeling particularly warm inside nor does it have the edginess of Haneke’s previous films. There’s only one relatively shocking moment but it’s nothing compared to what Haneke has done in previous films like “Funny Games” and “Caché,” and the ending is a bit of a head scratcher, not really leaving things in a satisfying way.
The film leaves you feeling as if you watched a solid character drama with above-average performances, but it doesn’t stand up to some of Haneke’s more daring films and not understanding why he’d want audiences to watch this tragic story makes it hard to recommend it wholeheartedly to everyone.
That’s it for now, but today (Thursday, September 6) is officially Day 1 of the Toronto International Film Festival, so we’ll have more reviews and a few daily recaps as it goes along.