Dispatches from the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival

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TIFF 2008

9/8/08

Film festivals have a reputation for disdaining mainstream Hollywood movies in favor of obscure, artsy stuff — a reputation that in many cases is well deserved, by the way — but the Toronto International Film Festival seems to have no such compunctions. Among the documentaries and French tragedies are unabashedly populist flicks like “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and the Coens’ “Burn After Reading,” to name just two. You could come to TIFF and never bother with a single subtitle or shaky, handheld camera, if you so desired.

Nearly every mainstream film I’ve seen in Toronto so far has been very good — which is a much better yardstick anyway. Sensible people have no problem with mainstream entertainment as long as it’s GOOD mainstream entertainment. Among the most anticipated was “Burn After Reading,” the Coen brothers’ first film since last year’s Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men.” (There was a time when the Coens would not have been considered mainstream, but those days are long gone.) The new film’s tone of black comedy and general buffoonery is the opposite of “No Country,” though the themes of crime, punishment, and theft — the Coens’ favorite things since day one — are still intact.

Speaking as an ardent Coenite, I don’t think “Burn After Reading” is among their greatest comedies. Detractors have long complained that the Coens don’t exhibit any sympathy for their characters, and this is the first time that I agree with them (or, rather, that the lack of compassion actually bothers me). That said, it’s a very funny movie, a daffy semi-satire of high-tech espionage thrillers in which some ordinary idiots accidentally find what they believe is highly sensitive CIA data. Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, Tilda Swinton, and Brad Pitt are the major players, and their performances are loose, quirky, hilarious, and profane. The film opens theatrically next week.

You won’t have to wait long for “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” either, as it opens on Oct. 3. It stars Michael Cera as Nick, a very Michael Cera-ish sort of smart, somewhat awkward high school student who’s just been dumped by his horrid girlfriend. Still nursing his wounds from the breakup (and still compiling mix CDs to woo her back), Nick winds up spending an evening in New York City with Norah (Kat Dennings), who likes Nick but can’t get him to let go of the last girl. It’s a surprisingly sweet comedy about teen romance, the kind where everything takes place over the course of one magical night, and Cera and Dennings are a terrific duo for it. Furthermore, I’m not surprised that it captures young love in the big city as well as it does; the director, Peter Sollett, made a film called “Raising Victor Vargas” a few years ago that was just as evocative.

“The Brothers Bloom” doesn’t have quite as much mainstream street cred as “Burn After Reading” or “Nick & Norah” — it comes from Rian Johnson, writer/director of 2005 indie darling “Brick” — but it has a mainstream cast and it definitely deserves mainstream success. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo star as Bloom and Stephen, con men and brothers who have been pulling one scam after another ever since they were kids, when their hijinks got them bounced from one foster home to another. Now in their 30s, the two agree to do one last caper before Bloom quits the business so he can meet a girl and settle down into a normal life. Naturally, Stephen arranges for the final game to involve a woman, Penelope (Rachel Weisz), a lonely, eccentric heiress, and Bloom finds himself falling for her even as he and Stephen plot to make off with a million of her dollars.

The mechanics of the brothers’ schemes are somewhat murky and maybe illogical, so the film doesn’t work entirely as a con story. But that’s not what it’s trying to be anyway. It’s more of a humorous character study, with a style similar to Wes Anderson’s, and packed with surreal sight gags and random goofiness. “Brick” was a great film, but it’s nice to see that Johnson can be light and jolly, too, making something accessible to general audiences without sacrificing intelligence. Summit Entertainment just moved the film’s release date from October to late December, aka Oscar-bait season. Rachel Weisz’s performance, in particular, might be worthy of some Academy attention when the time comes. She’s so lovable as Penelope that you can see why a fella would do everything in his power to insinuate himself into her life, and not just to steal her money.

9/9/08

Foreign films are big at the Toronto International Film Festival — duh, it has the word “International” right there in the name — and it’s not uncommon for future art-house hits to have their North American premieres here at TIFF. I’ve seen two so far that have the right stuff to wow indie-minded moviegoers. What’s more, they could be hits with young people, who often stick to the multiplexes and don’t like subtitles.

First, let’s talk about Jean-Claude Van Damme, shall we? The Belgian kick-boxing and butt-kicking champ has been making audiences cheer, often with some irony, since the 1980s, but he has rarely been taken seriously or treated with much respect. Today he is nothing more than a kitschy punch line and a regular fixture in the straight-to-DVD film industry. Yet this may change if “JCVD” can find its way into American theaters. After watching it, I find myself admiring and respecting the man. I even think he might be an OK actor, which is not a thought that had ever crossed my mind while watching him before. “JCVD” will change everything you think you know about J-C VD.

“JCVD” stars Van Damme as a slightly fictionalized version of himself, visiting his hometown of Brussels and getting caught in a hostage situation at a post office. Flashbacks show us the events leading up to it: his frustration over the course his career has taken (he’s started losing roles to Steven Seagal!), and his sadness over losing custody of his daughter to his ex-wife. He’s a shell of his former self, filled with existential angst and melancholy. And now he’s in the same kind of cockamamie crisis that his characters always find themselves in.

The film stops just short of parodying Van Damme or his movies, though it’s clear he has a great sense of humor about himself. The director, France’s Mabrouk El Mechri, has obvious affection for the Muscles from Brussels, and he has made the film to feel like a gritty 1970s crime drama (“Dog Day Afternoon,” in particular) — exactly the kind of respectable drama that has thus far eluded Van Damme so far. Van Damme gets a monologue near the end, speaking directly to the audience, which is oddly compelling and even touching. It’s a bizarre idea for a movie, just crazy enough to work, and El Mechri and Van Damme pull it off superbly.

The other foreign flick that caught my attention this weekend was “Il Divo,” which won a jury prize at Cannes earlier this year. I can’t even pretend to care about Italian politics, but “Il Divo,” a cool, crackling biopic of one of Rome’s most scandal-plagued prime ministers, is painted several shades of awesome. The man himself, Giulio Andreotti, is almost 90 now, and in his 70s in the era when the film is set. But the director, Paolo Sorrentino, is only in his mid 30s, and the film benefits tremendously from his young, hip perspective.

The film’s focus is Andreotti’s alleged Mafia ties, and I use the term “alleged” with some sarcasm. One political enemy after another “committed suicide” or “had an accident” over the course of Andreotti’s lengthy career; as a bold reporter tells him in the film, either he’s the most corrupt politician in modern Italian history, or the unluckiest victim of circumstantial evidence. Andreotti never threatens anyone, though. He simply reminds them of his massive personal archive of facts, figures, and evidence, and most potential whistle-blowers keep quiet to save their own skins.

Sorrentino uses modern electronic music, bombastic editing, and even hyperactive subtitles to keep things poppin’, but his best asset is his star, Toni Servillo. His Andreotti has hunched shoulders and a tight, stiff way of carrying himself, like his back is made of steel. His big, droopy face almost never smiles, and his owlish eyes look perpetually weary and humorless. He emerges as a cool sort of anti-hero, a bad guy you love as a character even if you hate him as a person. The film doesn’t have U.S. distribution in place yet, but I trust some indie company or other will jump at the chance to put it on the art house circuit.

9/10/08

If a law were passed forbidding the production of dramas about people who have been screwed up by the death of a loved one, the world’s film festivals would be forced to close down. I’ve seen at least three such films at Toronto so far, and the quality varies widely. It seems the grieving process is tricky to dramatize — there’s a fine line between enriching the viewers with cathartic drama and simply depressing them.

In the former category is “Rachel Getting Married,” which could also be titled “Rachel’s Sister Can’t Get Her S*** Together.” It’s Rachel’s wedding, but it’s her sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), who’s drawing all the attention. Kym, a drug addict and alcoholic, has been in and out of rehab several times, with the most recent stint ending two days before her sister’s big day. The girls once had a little brother; his death years ago was the source of some (but by no means all) of Kym’s dysfunction.

As it turns out, “Rachel Getting Married” is indeed the right title, even though Rachel is not the protagonist of the story. That’s the point: Kym cannot always be the center of the universe. The family — which includes Bill Irwin as the girls’ eager-to-please father and Debra Winger as their absentee mother — can’t be expected to drop everything and deal with Kym’s drama every time she relapses. Eventually you have to grow up and take care of yourself.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but as directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Jenny Lumet, it’s an easy movie to watch. All the performances are natural and unaffected, with realistic dialogue and many uncontrived funny moments — the natural humor that emerges from any family’s interactions, no matter how serious things are. Anne Hathaway is terrific, and so is Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Rachel. The two relate exactly like sisters: fighting one minute, laughing at a shared memory the next, always loving each other underneath it all.

I was somewhat less fond of “Genova,” a well-made drama that I can respect but that I have no interest in ever watching again. This one stars Colin Firth as a newly widowed father of two girls — teenager Kelly (Willa Holland) and younger Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) — who moves the family to the title Italian city to teach at a university for a year. His hope is that the change of scenery will help the girls work through their grief.

Kelly, like Kym in the other movie, believes her emotional state is more important than her father’s or sister’s, and she starts cavorting with local boys and defying her father’s rules almost immediately upon arriving in Italy. Mary, meanwhile, blames herself for her mother’s death, has nightmares about it, and is often comforted by visions of Mom herself (played by Hope Davis).

The film deals with Mary’s psyche more than anyone else’s, but my problem with it is that it doesn’t really “deal” with anything. There don’t seem to be any character arcs — where they are at the end doesn’t feel much different from where they were when they started. Without some kind of resolution or catharsis, why inflict these people’s sadness upon us, no matter how well acted it may be?

Finally we come to “The Burning Plain,” written and directed by Mexico’s Guillermo Arriaga, whose screenplays for “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” and “Babel” are famous for their multiple storylines and nonlinear narratives. True to form, “The Burning Plain” (Arriaga’s first feature as a director), introduces several sets of characters in three different time lines before gradually filling us in on how they’re connected.

Charlize Theron plays an Oregon restaurant manager with what you might call low self-esteem. (She’ll sleep with anyone, and she likes to cut herself.) In Texas or New Mexico or someplace like that, two families are grieving after one family’s mother (Kim Basinger) and the other family’s father (Joaquim de Almeida) died in a mobile-home fire while doin’ it. In Mexico, there’s a crop-duster and his little girl and another crop-duster.

Even though a lot of things happen in it — arson, plane crashes, fistfights, sex — “The Burning Plain” still manages to feel slow and uneventful, which you must admit is pretty impressive. It also feels contrived and melodramatic, like Arriaga threw together a bunch of domestic traumas and hoped we’d be moved by them, just because they’re so “gritty” and “real.” But I find the whole thing lifeless and dull instead. It might be time for Arriaga to try something new.

9/11/08

The best thing I’ve seen so far at the Toronto International Film festival is “The Wrestler,” the much-anticipated fourth film from Darren Aronofsky that stars Mickey Rourke as a washed-up Hulk Hogan type looking for one last shot at glory. It won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize just days before its press screening at Toronto, where every chair in the 580-seat theater had press-and-industry butt cheeks in it.

Aronofsky’s first three movies, “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” and “The Fountain,” established him as a master of visual poetry, albeit one who is sometimes baffling and obtuse. (Those are not necessarily bad qualities.) “The Wrestler,” on the other hand, is fairly straightforward, at least from a storytelling standpoint: Randy “The Ram” Robinson was a huge wrestling star in the 1980s; now he lives alone in a trailer and does small-scale shows on the weekends, where the has-beens and the not-yets are the only people who still treat him with respect; his body is falling apart after all the years of punishment; and he wants to have a 20th anniversary rematch with his former rival to recapture some of his youth.

The film’s genius lies in its subtleties. Randy has an estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, playing the usual Evan Rachel Wood role) with whom he wants to reconnect. He’s in love with a stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), whose career is similar to Randy’s in that both jobs require a stage name and have little use for anyone older than about 30. Randy comes to realize that despite his best efforts to do something else, the wrestling ring is really the only place he fits. Several moments in the film, particularly in the last scene, are incredibly poignant and moving.

The protagonist in the exuberant crowd-pleaser “Slumdog Millionaire” is looking for a different kind of fame and glory: 20 million rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” (I kept thinking the punch line would be that 20 million rupees was only about fifty bucks U.S., but no.) His name is Jamal (Dev Patel), he comes from the slums of Mumbai, and his lowly background is why the game show’s officials believe he must have cheated to make it as far as he did. After all, if doctors and lawyers couldn’t get all the questions right, how could some uneducated urchin?

Directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later,” “Millions”), “Slumdog” centers around Jamal’s police interrogation, where flashbacks to his youth explain how he happened to know the answers to the questions. For example, he knew whose face was on the American $100 bill — uncommon knowledge in India — because some guilty-feeling American tourists once gave him one. This clever story structure lets us learn about Jamal’s strong moral character, and it also informs us of his true motive for going on the show. It has to do with the love of a girl, of course.

Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. have partnered to release the film later this fall, when it’s sure to earn more praise as a respectable upbeat indie that connects with audiences and critics alike. Some have wondered if it will be this year’s “Juno,” which also premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, went to Toronto the following week, and subsequently became everybody’s feel-good indie favorite. (The movies don’t have much else in common.) It’s certainly a strong candidate for that kind of acclaim. It even ends with a Bollywood-style musical number, as I believe all movies should.

The title characters in “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” aren’t particularly interested in fame, or even in great fortune. They just want enough money to pay the rent and get their electricity turned back on — which, now that I think about it, is actually a severely depressing reason to make a porn film. So I guess it’s best not to think about that (or anything, really) in this latest vulgar, talky comedy from Kevin Smith, who seems to be playing catch-up after having his Vulgar, Talky Comedy crown stolen by Judd Apatow.

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks — both Apatow alumni, which makes comparisons even more unavoidable — star as lifelong friends and platonic roommates who decide to make a porn flick to pay off their bills. Not just any old sex tape will do, though; you can see those for free on the internet. They want to make an actual porn movie, with a lame plot and terrible acting and everything, and to that end they recruit several willing actors and actresses (including Kevin Smith mainstay Jason Mewes) to assist. But the crucial scene — where Zack and Miri have sex with each other — is the one that messes up everybody’s emotions.

It’s what messes up Smith’s film, too. The laughs are plentiful, the obscene observations witty and well delivered, for two-thirds of the running time. But when Zack and Miri’s feelings for each other become the focus, “Zack and Miri” becomes soggy and trite. Of course, real human emotions have never been Smith’s strong suit (Exhibit A: “Jersey Girl”), so it shouldn’t be too hard for fans to overlook “Zack and Miri‘s” weaknesses and just laugh at the raunchiness.

9/12/08

The difference between right and wrong is not always clear. For example, it is wrong to take another person’s life. But what about when that person is in front of you in line for a press screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and he invites 10 of his friends to join the line with him, cutting in front of you like you don’t even matter? Then the subject becomes much more complicated.

Thorny ethical dilemmas are at the heart of “Pride and Glory,” an ugly and unpleasant cop drama directed by Gavin O’Connor (“Tumbleweeds,” “Miracle”) and starring Edward Norton and Colin Farrell as two of New York’s finest. It begins with four NYPD officers being killed in a botched drug raid, then dissolves into a familiar, uninspired movie about crooked cops.

Yes, it’s crooked cops again, that old chestnut. If what happens in “Pride and Glory” (an arbitrary title, by the way) were the least bit different from what happens in the other 10,000 movies about crooked cops, I’d be a lot more interested in it. But it’s the same old story: scenes of witness coercion and perp-beating are interspersed with scenes of manly men swearing at each other with New York accents. I’ll get my crooked-cop fix on “The Shield,” thank you very much.

“What Doesn’t Kill You,” meanwhile, is on the other side of the law, though it’s just as “gritty” and “stark” and “full of profanity.” This one’s set in Boston and focuses on two low-level criminals, played by Mark Ruffalo and Ethan Hawke, who, like many men, want to increase the size of their racket. This, too, is generic and uncompelling, though certain aspects of it (like Ruffalo’s performance) make it tolerable, whereas “Pride and Glory” is just flat-out bad.

(Bonus: Donnie Wahlberg has a brief, useless cameo as a cop in “What Doesn’t Kill You.” This is in accordance with the Massachusetts state law that says any crime film set in Boston must contain at least one Wahlberg.)

When it comes to matters of right and wrong, the vast majority of the world’s population at least occasionally seeks guidance from a fellow by the name of God. Comedian Bill Maher believes the 4 billion people who believe in a Supreme Being are delusional, and that organized religion is a blight that must be wiped out if humanity is to progress. His film, “Religulous,” documents his conversations with the dumbest, least eloquent, most extreme believers he can find, all in the interest of convincing the audience that religion is silly and that God is imaginary.

Maher is preaching to the choir, of course. No one who believes in God is going to see this film and think, “Hey, he’s right. I’m going to become an atheist.” Maher’s tactics are grossly unfair, and his smarmy disdain for the people he interviews is readily apparent. This would be fine if all he wanted to do was make a comedy. Believe me, I’m very much in favor of making fun of people who disagree with you, and “Religulous” is often very funny. But if Maher genuinely wants to make a serious point — and his impassioned diatribe at the end indicates he does — then he would have to do a better job of it than he has done here.

9/13/08

From what I gather, the Toronto International Film Festival doesn’t traffic much in genres like horror or science fiction unless it’s a film about French-speaking chainsaw-wielding maniacs, or perhaps a quiet coming-of-age story about a gay zombie. What few genre flicks there are at TIFF are programmed in the “Midnight Madness” section, which is where I saw “The Burrowers,” which happens to be both a Western and a horror movie.

Now, first, the title is great because it makes you think that the film is actually “The Borrowers” and that you’re just hearing the Canadian pronunciation. But no, it’s “The Burrowers,” about people or things that burrow. This burrowing is accomplished in the Dakota Territory in 1879, where one family has been slaughtered and another gone missing. A search party is sent, including a young man who was fixin’ to propose marriage to one of the missing young ladies. It is assumed that the Indians are responsible, and there is much consternation over what those savages might be doing to the poor girls at this very moment.

The Indians are not to blame, of course — it’s the Burrowers. I’m not going to tell you what they are. Suffice it to say that the film, a very accomplished effort by up-and-coming horror master J.T. Petty (watch his “S&Man” if you can find it), is suitably creepy and exhilarating once it gets past its slow start. It’s also an impressive mixture of the Western and horror genres, something that has rarely been done at all, let alone this well.

“The Burrowers” is going straight to DVD next spring, a regrettable decision on the part of Lionsgate because it robs viewers of the chance to see the bleak prairie vistas and terrifying nighttime attacks on the big screen. I guess if it’s not a remake of a Japanese film about angry ghosts, or a slasher movie about text-messaging American teenagers being massacred, it’s not commercially viable at the multiplex. So it goes.

A film that is being released theatrically but that surely will not make any money is “Synecdoche, New York.” It’s the directorial debut from Charlie Kaufman, who wrote “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” and has been rightfully hailed as a master of surreal, self-referential comedy. While “Synecdoche, New York” is a terrifically inventive and bizarre movie, it’s also well nigh unmarketable. First there’s that word in the title, which is hard to pronounce (it’s sin-ECK-duh-kee) and which is unfamiliar to most people (it’s a figure of speech where a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing — e.g., “wheels” to mean “car” — or vice versa). And then there’s its subject matter: a man, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, stages a massive play about his entire life, with actors playing him, and other actors playing the actors playing him, and so forth.

I know it won’t be for everyone, but I find the film’s strange humor and abundant what-the-hell? moments to be hilarious and invigorating. Things happen that don’t make any sense, like some characters aging while others don’t. Time moves randomly — it’s the first day of fall in one scene, then Halloween later in the same scene. A woman says she has twins named Robert, Daniel, and Allen. Someone buys a house that is currently on fire, and that continues to be on fire all the time without ever being consumed.

But the movie is also melancholy and wistful, like Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind,” with ruminations on death and loss and the meaning of life. It’s the first movie I’ve seen this year that I wanted to re-watch as soon as it was over, partly to remind myself of some of the brilliant one-liners, and partly just to wallow in the weirdness some more.

My last screening at the film festival was another one coming soon to a theater near you: Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna.” This is an epic drama, almost three hours long, about four African-American soldiers in World War II who are separated from their unit behind enemy lines. This is beyond the scope of anything Lee has done before, and he rises to the challenge remarkably well, with battle scenes nearly as visceral and jolting as those in “Saving Private Ryan” and a multi-layered story involving the U.S. Army, the Nazis, and the Italian resistance movement.

The film’s only significant flaw is its framing story, set in 1983, which is possibly unnecessary and definitely corny. When we’re in the thick of it, back in 1944, the film is smooth and mature, mostly free of the bombast that has characterized so many of Lee’s other films. Even when the focus is what it’s like for blacks to give their lives in defense of a country that subjugates them, Lee’s tone is never preachy or off-putting. This might be the most accessible and accomplished work of his career, and I’m glad to see it.

— Film.com