We’re midway through the Toronto Film Festival and since we’ll be writing full reviews for many of the movies we saw on Day 3, we’ll skip ahead to Sunday through Tuesday where we saw a mixed bag of films.
Stuart Blumberg was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right and while his directorial debut Thanks for Sharing (Lionsgate) does star that film’s Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, it is a very different beast. Revolving around a group of sex addicts in a group, it mainly deals with Ruffalo’s character Adam, having hit five years of sobriety in his sex addiction, who starts dating again as he gets into a relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow. Meanwhile, Adam’s sponsor, played by Tim Robbins, has been experiencing problems at home with his estranged drug-addicted son (Patrick Fugit) returning home and then there’s a third story involving Josh Gad from “The Book of Mormon” as a brand new member of the group, put there by the courts, who befriends another new member played by Alecia Moore, better known as singer P!nk. While it has similar themes as other movies playing this year’s TIFF including David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, James Ponsoldt’s Smashed and even The Master, it just doesn’t stand up to any of them because two of the three stories just don’t seem necessary. Maybe if Ruffalo’s character and his story was more interesting, Blumberg wouldn’t have felt the need for the others, but the film just seems unfocused and bland.
Similarly, I was looking forward to Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, his return to vampires for the first time since Interview with the Vampire. Based on the play by Moira Buffini, Jordan has two strong leads in Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton playing sisters Eleanor and Clara Webb, who have a dark secret that bonds them together. (Guess what? Spoiler: They’re vampires!) It begins in the city where Ronan’s character is writing stories based on their lives as the movie flashes back to their past where we see their backstory and how they each were turned into vampires. After an incident with a vampire coming after them, they move to a seaside community and set up shop in a lavish hotel that Clara turns into a brothel while Eleanor starts discovering boys.
The movie has a lot of beautiful and stylish visuals, but it’s also just plain boring and it then commits a cardinal movie sin by having one of the characters in the flashback tell a story, forcing a flashback within a flashback. Ronan is as good as always but Arterton, who I generally like, may be hot as a stripper/prostitute, but she tends to get rather screechy, though the worst performance of the movie goes to Caleb Landry Jones as a young man who becomes taken with Eleanor. By the end, the whole thing just starts getting ridiculous, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t work, since Jordan used to be such an original and innovative filmmaker and now he seems to be trying too hard to make a comeback by returning to familiar ground.
Ten years ago, filmmaker Eli Roth came to TIFF with Cabin Fever and a couple years later, he was back with Hostel. This year, he showed up to present his collaboration with Chilean filmmaker Nicolas Lopez, a terror-filled disaster movie called Aftershock, which takes place during the Chilean earthquake of 2010. The film starts out so well introducing six people who spend a night clubbing including Eli Roth as the unnamed “Gringo,” three women from out of town and two local guys, who spend most of the time hitting on them. Lopez does such a good job with the production values in the first half and making the audience like these characters so much that it’s disconcerting when the tone turns dark and horrible things start happening to them during the earthquake. Surprisingly, a lot of the practical special FX make-up once people started dying seemed sort of cheesy and fake, rather than being disturbing, so we were kind of mixed on the results. It’s a good “Midnight Madness” movie though and shouldn’t have problem finding distribution here.
Our only movie on Monday, TIFF Day 5, was Ariel Vronen’s The Iceman (Millennium Films), a fairly standard period gangster flick starring Michael Shannon as Richie Kuklinski, a New York family man pulled into the world of organized crime as a hitman for Roy De Mayo (Ray Liotta). Before we get to all that stuff, we see him on a date with Winona Ryder who will become his wife, and that’s actually one of the nice things about the movie, that we do see him as a family man with his wife and two daughters. After making a name for himself, Richie meets a fellow hitman who drives around in an ice cream truck, played by Chris Evans, and they partner up, but things escalate as Ritchie becomes the target of different gangs. Shannon gives another great performance all the while changing facial hair and hairpieces, and there are some funny cameos by the likes of Stephen Dorff and James Franco, but the oddest casting had to be David Schwimmer as a gangster, complete with fake moustache. Other than that, we’ve definitely seen this movie many times before and because of that, it’s always obvious where things are going one. “The Iceman” probably won’t be breaking any new ground in the crime biopic subgenre although anyone who likes that sort of movie should enjoy this one just fine.
There was a lot of semi-subdued buzz for the fact that legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick would be bringing To the Wonder, his follow-up to The Tree of Life, to the festival, and while I should be well enured to his mode of filmmaking and possibly a little more open to “non-verbal storytelling” due to my love of the recent Samsara, I just didn’t have the patience to get through this one. Basically it involves a lot of Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko cavorting around various locations in France moving to somewhere in the South where he’s been relocated for work. There, Javier Bardem shows up as a minster and the narrative starts following him and then we’re back to Affleck as her visa expires and she leaves and he ends up hooking up with a childhood friend, played by Rachel McAdams, and it follows them for a bit. I basically got through an hour of the movie and decided I had better things to do with my time since clearly Malick didn’t have as much of a story written before shooting the footage and was just making it up as he went along. It’s the only movie at TIFF I walked out of.
Later that day, we decided to check out a rare foreign language film at TIFF with Ziad Doueri’s The Attack. We had seen Doueri’s previous film Lila Says, a pleasant sexual coming-of-age story, but this one is very different, starring Ali Suliman as an Arab doctor who has established himself in Israel when one day he learns his wife was the suicide bomber responsible for an explosion that killed 17 people and everything changes. It’s a great premise for a film that’s quite drab at times as we watch Amin reflect back on happier times with his wife and then he travels to the last place his wife was seen to try to get answers on how she was inducted by extremists into killing herself for the cause. Unfortunately, this never quite gets up to the power of a movie like Paradise Now, Suliman’s breakthrough film. The last 20 minutes is when it offers a couple nice moments and surprises, but it feels like it takes way too long to get to that point, though we can certainly see this getting a mention or two during awards season, since it is such a strong topic.
The potential for Imogene (Roadside Attractions), pairing Kristen Wiig with Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, the directors of American Splendour, certainly was high, especially considering how hot Wiig is now following “Bridesmaids.” She certainly is trying to continue her good will by playing Imogene Duncan, a wannabe playwright who loses both her job and her boyfriend at the same time, and she pretends to kill herself to try to get her ex to return, but instead she’s remanded to the custody of her mother Zelda, played by Annette Bening, who still lives back in New Jersey. Back home, she reconnects with her dysfunctional brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), her mother’s new boyfriend, George Boosh, who claims to be CIA–Matt Dillon at his wackiest–and ends up in a relationship with her mother’s younger tenant Lee, played by Darren Criss. Maybe this would be a funnier premise if we hadn’t seen the same thing with Sundance opener “Hello I Must Be Going,” starring the far superior Melanie Lynskey.
Oh, and Imogene’s brother has invented a crabshell suit that can be used for protecting oneself and as soon as it’s introduced, you know it’s going to play a big part in the film’s climax and sure enough that’s what happens. Not to crap on screenwriter Michelle Morgan, but much of the problems comes down to the fact that there are just way too many ideas being thrown into a fairly weak screenplay and that really hurts it. Bening really is the best part of the movie as Imogene’s mother who lied to her about her father’s death, and Dillon has some funny moments though nothing we haven’t seen him do better. Wiig does little to elevate the material as she did with “Bridesmaids,” and that may be since there was little about Imogene to set her apart. Maybe we’ve just seen too many better movies, but needless to say, we weren’t too impressed with the effort and the film just felt lacking in its attempt to throw in lots of wacky ideas, none of which were particularly funny.
Just one year after his second film, the psychological thriller Kill List found him many fans in TIFF’s “Midnight Madness,” British filmmaker Ben Wheatley returned with Sightseers (IFC Films), a dark road comedy written by and starring Steve Oram and Alice Lowe as an odd couple who go on a cross-country sightseeing trip via caravan trailer which turns into a killing spree as first he and then she begin to bump off people they run into. It’s darkly funny with a lot of violence and gore and both of the actors do an incredible job creating such an odd and quirky but likeable characters in a believable relationship. It’s certainly going to be an acquired taste for most, but our twisted sense of humor had a lot of fun with it and it played very well at the Ryerson during the fest.
TIFF still has a couple days to go, and we should have one more recap piece, a couple more reviews and our wrap-up which will include our list of the “Best of the Fest” between now and Sunday.