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Smorgasbord of Cinematic Riches

Toronto International Film Festival continues to raise its game

By Jason Gargano · September 21st, 2011 · Movies
film1_shame_michael_fassbender_carey-mulliganMichael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in Shame - Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is not only the biggest and most vital film festival in North America — it now rivals Cannes as most important cinematic event on the planet. More than 300 films (the majority of which were world, international or North American premieres) from 65 different countries screened during the 11-day festival (Sept. 8-18). Nearly every genre, subject matter and stylistic approach imaginable is represented — from glossy Hollywood productions to intimate documentaries, from debut efforts by new talents to the latest works by filmmaking masters from across the globe.

Now in its 36th year, TIFF keeps finding ways to improve and evolve the experience for its thousands of rabid attendees — a mix of press, industry and movie buffs, all eager to take in a slate of films that typically shapes the fall movie season (and kick-starts the inevitable Oscar buzz). Last year saw the unveiling of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a shiny architectural wonder and tangible monument to the festival’s rise in cinematic stature. The Lightbox’s presence — complete with swanky bar area, gift shop and five public theaters with year-round programming — has consolidated what was once a more sprawling citywide event to a downtown area in the shadow of the city’s iconic CN Tower.

As usual, the biggest challenge is trying to fit everything in — no fewer than four screenings are going on at any given time daily from 8:30 a.m.-midnight. And that doesn’t even take into account the various ancillary events, workshops and parties.

Let’s dig right into the good stuff. The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s first film since 2004’s Sideways, is a droll delight, another slanted, deadpan comedy about the ways in which an everyday man’s life can go terribly off course (see also the Payne men played by Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and Matthew Broderick in Election). George Clooney is Matt King, a land baron and lawyer in Hawaii with a wife and two daughters, aged 17 and 10. Matt’s situation changes radically when his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident, forcing him to interact with his daughters, which leads to a surprising revelation and more than a few awkward situations. Throw in another family issue — he’s negotiating a multi-million-dollar real-estate deal that will impact not only his immediate and extended family but also his entire community — and Matt’s life is at serious crossroads. 

Payne, who adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel for the screen, generates unexpected emotional depth via a bevy of flawed characters. Much of the credit goes to Clooney, who gives a subtle, thoroughly convincing performance — possibly his best yet — as a guy trying to hold it together. Then there’s Payne’s deft use of Hawaii, a setting that has been oddly absent from the big screen and just another unique element in a film that’s sure to generate plenty of awards-season love. (Fox Searchlight will release The Descendants in November.)

British visual-artist-turned director Steve McQueen follows up his striking debut, Hunger, with another harrowing drama, Shame, the grim, aesthetically spare story of a sex addict (Michael Fassbender) in modern-day Manhattan whose meticulous world is upset when his younger sister (Carey Mulligan) makes an unexpected visit. As he did in Hunger, his breakthrough role, Fassbender fully immerses himself in his character — a man so marked by his apparently troubled past (McQueen keeps things effectively vague) that he is incapable of any meaningful emotional intimacy. 

While the carnally explicit Shame is likely to garner an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, that limiting designation (some theaters will no doubt refuse to distribute it) is unlikely to dampen the praise that will come Fassbender’s way for a performance that at times seems so unblinkingly and fearlessly lifelike that it could pass for documentary.

(Fox Searchlight is set to release Shame sometime before the end of the year.)

Arriving from Cannes with prerequisite controversy in place, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia stuck me as one of his most convincing and affecting efforts yet — a pitch-black comedy masquerading as an apocalyptic sci-fi drama. Think of it as the caustic flip side to Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life, which is a film so intent on beauty that it nearly undermines its admittedly inscrutable intentions. Melancholia, on the other hand, is beautiful in spite of itself. And, as von Trier’s manic-depressive protagonist, Kirsten Dunst is something of a revelation, her tear-kissed porcelain skin and angular face letting through just the right amount of desperate longing. (I’d pay big bucks to see her character meet up with Fassbender’s equally adrift Shame soul.)

Few, if any, filmmakers working today have the ability to marry intimate emotional content with large, socially relevant themes as viscerally as von Trier. No doubt that mastery of the medium sometimes gets the better of him, as in the impressively bat-shit Antichrist, which takes melodrama to the extreme. I have but one thing to say to von Trier’s detractors, most of whom insist there’s less to him than meets the eye: look again. (Magnolia Pictures will release Melancholia in November.) 

On the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of scope and tone is Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, a sweet, lo-fi drama that takes a similar approach as her previous don’t-call-it-a-Mumblecore-inspired film, Humpday. Mark Duplass is back as Jack, a single thirtysomething guy who is dealing with the one-year anniversary of the death of his brother, whose ex-squeeze (Emily Blunt) is now Jack’s best friend (and secret crush). Shelton does a lot with little, fashioning an incisive character study about the different ways romantic longing guides our actions. (IFC Films picked it up after its first TIFF screening.)

Whit Stillman’s much-anticipated Damsels in Distress — his first film since 1998’s Last Days of Disco, and only his fourth after Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994) — arrives with the director’s singular voice intact. Though it doesn’t stray far from Stillman’s well-established interests — this one is set in an unnamed American university and centers itself on a group of preppy sorority girls (including a stellar Greta Gerwig) who pontificate about social mores in a vernacular that’s part Woody Allen, part self-help textbook and all deadpan hilarity — it does branch off into unexpected areas, including a few musical interludes that are so perplexingly odd as to border on camp. Likely to generate a love-it-or-hate-it response, I found Damsels’ unique rhythms largely amusing. (Sony Pictures Classics will release it sometime next year.)

Speaking of camp, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest melodramatic mind-fuck, The Skin I Live In, is too twisted (and ultimately vacuous) for its own good — even for Pedro. After a parade of typically stylish Hitchcockian narrative and visual hijinks, The Skin I Live In’s too-obvious finale left one word dangling in my beat-up frontal lobe: duh. (Sony Pictures Classics will release Almodóvar’s latest in October.)  

Armed with awards at both Sundance and Cannes, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is an effective, if sometimes overly earnest, drama about a blue-collar, rural Ohio man (an impressively restrained Michael Shannon) who has visions of an apocalyptic storm that will wash away his home and family. Is he going mad? Or is his odd behavior — which includes the expansion of an underground shelter that he can’t afford in his backyard — prophetic? If Nichols’ story channels our current anxiety-riddled zeitgeist a little too perfectly, there are worse things to be guilty of.

Probably the most purely entertaining film of my TIFF 2011 experience, Mortem Tyldum’s Headhunters is a crazy Norweigan crime thriller with more than a few unexpected twists and a refreshingly unique protagonist (Aksel Hennie). (I was happy to hear that Magnolia will distribute it in the U.S. sometime next year.)

Among my biggest disappointments was Sarah Polley’s follow-up to her assured 2006 directorial debut Away from Her. Perhaps in an effort to move away from Her’s more stately, elegiac material, Take This Waltz is pure contrivance from the get-go, a whimsical romance with affected dialogue and ornate production design straight out of Miranda July’s wet dreams. While the ever-gifted Michele Williams does what she can as the emotionally conflicted protagonist, Seth Rogen is close to unbearable as her unlikely husband, a guy whose turf is being encroached upon by a handsome gondolier driver/visual artist who just happens to live across the street.

Even more self-indulgent is Guy Maddin’s nearly incomprehensible Keyhole, the adventurous filmmaker’s take on Homer’s Odyssey by way of a gangster flick starring Jason Patric — and a long way down from his beguiling autobiographical documentary My Winnipeg. Likewise, William Friedkin’s nasty, often amusing adaptation of Tracy Lett’s stage-play Killer Joe doesn’t know when to say when, leaving its game cast (Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon and Juno Temple, who brings to mind Sissy Spacek’s early performances) to drown amid a cartoonishly bloody finale and enough noir trappings to power four such genre excursions. (No word on when any of the three aforementioned disappointments will reach local theaters.)

Finally, no doubt the most anticipated offering for Cincinnati audiences, Clooney’s The Ides of March was unveiled at a packed press and industry screening (a few people were even sitting in the aisles, which is unheard of at the normally tightly run ship known as TIFF) on the festival’s first full day. My initial reaction? It’s no Good Night, and Good Luck. 

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its pleasures — Ides is a taut, well-acted political thriller of Alan J. Pakula vintage (think All the President’s Men in terms of style and tone). There are also a number of crisp, well-written scenes that are likely to get a rise from David Mamet. But Ides’ story — adapted by Clooney, Beau Willimon and Grant Heslov from Willimon’s stage-play Farragut North — of a political consultant (Ryan Gosling) dealing with internal campaign strife that threatens to undermine his candidate’s chances of winning the Ohio Democratic primary for president doesn’t quite have enough dramatic meat on its bones to transcend genre. And for a film with the pedigree of this thing, that might be considered a letdown. (The Ides of March is set for Oct. 7 release, at which time I’ll have more to say about Clooney’s locally shot thriller.) ©



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