The Toronto Film Festival has been back for another year, and I was distracted from transit affairs enough to be watching movies and writing reviews rather than the usual content on this site.
Reviews appear here in the order I screened films.
Included in this batch are:
- Festival promos and observations
- Rust and Bone
- The Gatekeepers
- Stories We Tell
- Frances Ha
- Anna Karenina
- Seven Psychopaths
- A Liar’s Autobiography — The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman
- Cloud Atlas
Festival Promos and Observations
2012 was a year with many very good movies (I have to stop myself from using “films” now that almost everything is digital), but nothing gave me a sense of “the greatest movie ever” that I’ve had in past years. This seemed to be a common feeling among people I talked to or overheard. We were waiting to be amazed, and it never quite happened although a few shows came close.
This year saw the demotion of Blackberry as one of the primary TIFF sponsors no doubt because of their delicate condition and the need to conserve capital. Their name was attached to the “People’s Choice Awards” instead, but this was undermined by a change in the voting system.
In years gone by, we ranked our votes from 1 to 5 and there was a considerable effort to corral ballots from viewers as they left the theatres. This year, the vote was either up or down by putting your ticket in the ballot box or voting online using your ticket number.
For much of the festival, few people were voting and the ballot boxes were not easy to find. Trust Blackberry to sponsor a botched implementation. Also, we have no way of knowing how the votes count, and whether coming first is simply a case of getting out the vote in big houses, or something weighted based on the capacity of the venues where movies played.
For whatever it’s worth, the list of winners is available at the TIFF website.
L’Oréal Paris is a new sponsor this year with an ad featuring supermodels swishing their hair around for our delectation. The ad was hissed at five of the screenings I attended.
Bell is a lead sponsor of TIFF, but despite pride of place and all the money they seem to have, they trotted out the same tired ad for “Fibe” TV service from last year. Oddly enough, it’s not even shot in widescreen, now the common format for most presentations. Maybe they are saving their pennies for new corporate acquisitions.
As usual, the spot thanking the volunteers (now sponsored by Cineplex) got applause from the audiences, although not as robust as in past years. This year’s version has a casting call including Deepa Mehta and David Cronenberg. Still mildly amusing after seeing it 31 times.
Finally, although TIFF has excised the word “piracy” from the admonition against recording movies at screenings, a chorus of “yargghhhh”s greeted most films, especially those attracting a younger crowd. At one screening, the person next to me said “You’ve been practicing!”. This is something of a TIFF tradition, and I hope visiting filmmakers understand it’s a tribute to how much we’re anticipating their work.
Rust and Bone / De rouille et d’os **½
Directed by Jacques Audiard / France / Belgium
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schönärts star in a movie adapted from a pair of short stories by Canadian author Craig Davidson. Having read and heard some buzz about this before the festival, I included it in my list. The director comes with a good record, and the movie is doing well at the box office France.
Ali (Schönärts) is a ne’er-do-well who picks up money as he can through petty theft assisted by his young son Sam. They are broke much of the time. During a brief stint as a bouncer at a club, he meets Stéphanie (Cotillard) while rescuing her from undesired attention.
Stéphanie works as a whale trainer at the French Marineland, but in a freak accident, loses both legs below the knee. Her recovery is slow, but Ali encourages her and she becomes almost stronger than before. Stéphanie is a model of physical and emotional recovery from a disabling injury.
Meanwhile, he gets into fighting, with a sideline in security work. That takes Ali to the very supermarket where his sister, Anna, works and where she regularly makes off with stale-dated products that would otherwise be dumped.
In the best dramatic tradition, we need a few crises to focus the plot and set up an ending. Ali’s hidden camera monitoring at the market is illegal, but that doesn’t stop the firing of employees. Now both Anna and Ali are out of work. To crank things up a notch, Sam nearly drowns after falling through winter ice.
For me there were too many co-incidences, too many incidents that work themselves out. Ali seems to have spectacular powers of recovery, and no matter what trouble befalls him, he’s back to normal only five minutes later. The sense that everyone lives somewhat happily ever after just doesn’t ring true. If this movie didn’t have name actors, would it attract an audience, would anyone care what happened to these people?
A disappointing start to my week at TIFF.
The Gatekeepers ***½
Directed by Dror Moreh / Israel / France / Germany / Belgium
The Gatekeepers was the first of three related documentaries TIFF programmed this year on Middle-Eastern problems between Israel and Palestine. (The others — A World Not Ours and State 194 — will be reviewed in later installments.)
This proved to be a surprising look into the minds behind the Israeli Security Agency, Shin Bet. Six former heads of the organization agreed to be interviewed, and with a level of candidacy rarely seen from people in their position. Collectively, they were deeply involved in much of Israeli history, protecting the state as they saw fit.
Looking back on that history and the evolution of relations with the Palestinians, their opinions are not a hard line, right-wing view. Instead, there are difficult questions about what should or should not have been done, and a concern of how Israel has evolved. After the Six Day Way and the occupation of Palestinian lands, Israel’s role changed. Things really fell apart with the first Intifada, and further complications arose from the policy of building settlements in the occupied territories. Over the years, tension between the two sides rose, and the technology of hostilities evolved. Israel had the military superiority, but the Palestinians had suicide terrorists who could inflict just as much damage in return.
The Gatekeepers is a sobering look at the limitations of power with echoes both in today’s Israel and conflicts elsewhere.
Stories We Tell ****
Written and Directed by Sarah Polley / Canada
In her latest film, Sarah Polley explores the myths of families and pays tribute to her mother, Diane, as seen through many eyes. Officially, the film is a documentary, but “docudrama” would be more accurate given the mix of present-day, historical and staged footage.
In 2007, Polley learned that her biological father was not the man she grew up with, and that her mother’s history was more complicated than it might seem. This story is told by many family members, some more comfortable than others, and the primary storyteller is “dad”. When he learned that he was not Sarah’s father, he wrote a long memoire. This text, as a voiceover, provides a link through the film.
Other relatives contribute their bits, and there is even an amusing interview with someone who might have been, but was not Polley’s real dad. Everyone remembers different events in different ways, and we (and Polley) have to piece together a view of her mother from the different tales.
Some footage of the Polleys is genuine archival “home movies”, while other footage is staged with actors and shot to look like period film. Whose story is the truth? Not only must we sort between versions of memories, but also the decisions Polley herself made. Both the director and editor control which version of reality we get to see.
If Stories We Tell were nothing more than a collection of memories and a search for the truth about someone’s past, it would be at best a scrapbook for family and close friends. However, as Polley tells the story, it pulls in the audience to a wider set of emotions about families, how they learn about and live with each other. Finding one’s parents, getting to know who they really are (or were), is a common journey for everyone.
A technical note: Stories We Tell was shot on 35mm, and I suspect this helps some of the “home movie” look of material shot to look as if it’s in the past. Whoever prepared the collection of ads for the intro to the screening managed (deliberately or not) to get lots of dirt on a film version of the ads (particularly the one from Bell) which were crystal clear at all other screenings. I’m not sure whether this was a deliberate ploy to give the whole presentation a dated look, or if the editors at Deluxe (who prepared the screening materials) have not dusted their editing suites since the move to digital.
Frances Ha **½
Directed by Noah Baumbach / USA
In his program guide description, TIFF’s Cameron Bailey describes Frances Ha as “today’s Manhattan“. Well, no. It takes more than shooting in New York in black & white to live up to that comparison.
The title character, Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig), is a dancer, sort of, who does some teaching but never makes the jump from apprentice to member in a local company. She is one of a collection of 20-somethings who manage to get by living in New York with a mixture of real jobs, generous friends, and flatmates to share expenses. Some are professionals, some just drift.
Frances adores a college-era friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), but it’s a one sided, platonic relationship. Indeed Sophie will decamp to Japan leaving Frances to fend for herself. In time, somehow, Frances builds up her confidence and choreographs a well-received new piece, but she’s still the same, scattered person.
I really had a hard time connecting with most of the characters here even though I really wanted to like Frances. One might argue that this is a story for a younger crowd, for a generation still trying to find its way, but that would simply be making excuses for this lightweight effort. That generation (like all 20-somethings) is far less vapid than they’re given credit for.
At the screening, both Baumbach and Gerwig, who shared the scriptwriting, were present for a Q&A. The body language, the chilly distance between them, could be felt 20 rows back in the Ryerson Theatre, and I could not help wondering if this reflected differences in their attitude about what should have been on the screen. Baumbach couldn’t answer any question coherently, and kept the mike for himself when he should have passed it to Gerwig. For me, it added to my sense that Baumbach is a director whose movies I can do without.
Directed by Joe Wright / UK
Normally, I would avoid the “big” films at TIFF because they will come out commercially, and I can temper my enthusiasm with reviews by others. However, the lure of a screenplay by Tom Stoppard drew me in.
At times I wonder how a film manages to get from a “concept” probably born out of too-long nights in a bar to a full-blown production with A-list actors. In this case, someone had the idea of setting Anna Karenina in a theatre to give some of the scenes a staginess, a touch of a musical (although definitely not the opera). This sets up two production number scenes.
One finds us in an office where rows of clerks with piles of paperwork rhythmically stamp, turn, stamp, turn their way through the day’s work. Very cute, might even fit in a bad imitation of Fosse, but utterly without any connection to the rest of this movie. Anna’s brother Stepan Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden) presides over this strange scene. He’s a decent enough chap and one wonders why he would have created the office equivalent of the Sorceror’s Apprentice.
The other is the grand ball where Anna dances with her future lover, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The music gets bigger and faster, the dancers swirl around the floor, and it’s all very impressive. And long. I could not help having the feeling that if the rest of the book’s adaptation proceeded at this pace, we would still be in the theatre several weeks after TIFF closed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anna Karenina is a huge book by Tolstoy with many characters and subplots, all interwoven. A challenge for any adaptation is deciding what to keep and what to leave out. That challenge isn’t helped when individual scenes run on at length. We are left with the novel reduced to a sketchbook with pretty pictures.
After the lengthy ballroom sequence, director Joe Wright shifts gears and charges ahead attempting to bring some morsels of plot and character development to the screen. We have to guess at why Anna is feeling so hemmed in. Yes, her husband is 20 years older, but he’s an important man and it’s unclear whether there was ever a spark in the marriage. Anna does spend a lot of time staring out of the screen at us, but there’s no thoughts passing behind Kiera Knightley’s beautiful eyes. When she is not staring at us, she is peering into a mirror. She wants a lover, but is this an indulgence or a justified escape?
Meanwhile her husband, Alexei (Jude Law), suffers, insists rather ineffectively on his rights, and becomes distracted from his job as a government Minister. Vronsky is oily, something of a young Snidely Whiplash (one even expects some moustache twirling), the classic cad audiences have learned to distrust from the moment he appears on screen. Anna falls for him, but her fate did not arouse much sympathy from me.
Then there’s Nikolai Levin, a well-meaning country noble who insists on working the fields with his peasants, much to their distrust and displeasure. Much of his story from the book is completely missing here because there isn’t any time for subplots.
In due course, Anna cannot handle the problems of her life, and she throws herself under a train. (That’s my railway content for this year’s festival.)
I don’t think these feelings were exactly what Tolstoy intended me to have when he wrote his novel.
A triumph of show over substance.
Seven Psychopaths ***½
Directed by Martin McDonagh / USA / UK
Two men stand by the side of a road. They are about to murder someone, but one of the killers has cold feet because their target is a woman, and he doesn’t kill women. While they banter somewhat philosophically on their task, a masked figure walks up behind them, draws two pistols and kills the pair. This serial killer specializes in serial killers, and he leaves his calling card, the Jack of Diamonds.
Marty (Colin Farrell) is a writer with a great idea for a script, but all he has is the title. Great title “Seven Psychopaths”, but no plot. Marty’s friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) wants to help — he’s an out of work actor hoping for a co-writing credit. What Marty doesn’t know (yet) is that Billy will also be one of his characters.
When he’s not helping out with the script, Billy has a sideline kidnapping dogs in Beverly Hills. Hang on to them for a few days, return them for a reward, and you make a tidy profit at the cost of some dog food. His partner in crime, Hans (Christopher Walken), is a perfectly nice man, but with a mean streak that earns him a place in the story. Hans and Billy make one big mistake — they grab a dog owned by a local gangster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who is probably madder than the rest of the cast put together.
Poor Marty is trapped in a screenplay where the characters, especially Billy, have taken over. One plot line is the classic “story heard in a bar”, but which version is correct, and whose story is it anyhow?
All this builds up to a shootout in the desert, the high point of Marty’s (and McDonagh’s) script. At the Q&A, McDonagh talked about his fascination with violence in American movies, and that is the subtext of Seven Psychopaths. The same humour of his In Bruges is here, but the pacing goes off at the start of the desert sequence. McDonagh mentioned that it had been longer originally, and that sequence was cut back. Maybe not quite enough.
All the same, Seven Psychopaths is great fun and worth seeing. Definitely worth a lusty chorus of “Yarrghh” from the audience, and winner of the audience choice award for Midnight Madness.
Directed by Costa-Gavras / France
In this would-be thriller, director Costa-Gavras takes on the banking industry and its amoral behaviour. Considering that the details of the general story — how the financial industry almost wrecked the world economy — there’s not much room for surprise on that score. Instead, we have to wonder how the power dynamics of the main characters will work out. Sadly, for that to make a good movie, we have to care. These are not even likable bad guys.
The setting is a major French bank called “Phénix”. After its CEO suffers a sudden illness on the golf course, he names a young protegé, Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh), to take his place hoping he will be pliable enough to do what he’s told. The old guard on the board — a mixture of good folks, old farts and young but incompetent relatives — are unhappy, and they get more than they bargained for when Marc shows his true colours.
He talks a good line, even advocating that the bank purge itself of investments that could be politically embarrassing and to improve the bottom line. He sounds like a reformer, but he is deeply cynical and treats media interviews as a chance to polish his legend. There are a few odd scenes where we hear Marc’s inner voice, an outrage at events, but this is never realized in his actions. Are we to think he really has a conscience? It certainly never makes an appearance in the outer world.
Trouble arrives from the bank’s major shareholder, a Florida hedge fund, who want to bleed money from Phénix through a scam to buy a worthless Japanese bank the fund already owns. Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne) fronts for the Americans, and he makes no secret of wanting results from Marc as soon as possible. Marc discovers what the plot will actually do, and sets out to thwart it through a friendly takeover by a rival European bank.
Boiled down to essentials, this is a story about how a bunch of European bankers showed up their American rivals by pulling off a corporate coup through insider trading. Yes, the “good” bankers protected their company from the ravages of “bad” bankers, but they are hardly heroes. Both sides care only about success as they define it, while a deeper social responsibility for their actions is completely absent.
A Liar’s Autobiography — The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman *½
Directed by Ben Timlett, Bill Jones & Jeff Simpson / UK
Yes, I know, I should beware of any attempt to present “new” Python material even if the piece isn’t actually directed by one of the original cast. But it’s animation, and I’m a sucker for that. No, it’s not Terry Gilliam’s work.
By now you probably have the idea that I was rather disappointed. This movie is adapted from a three-hour commentary recorded by Graham Chapman before his death. Much of it deals with his younger life and the challenges of being gay. The song “Sit On My Face” gets an extensive workout here. Oddly enough, although the audience was provided with song-sheets, there’s no point where the movie exhorted us to sing along.
Probably the most annoying aspect of the movie is that it’s 3D animation which is not, of course, really 3D. We’re still dealing with 2D images that are manipulated in the viewing space to create “depth” and save the animator the trouble of actually having to design that into the drawings. Many studios worked on parts of the movie, and the variety of styles turns from mildly interesting to tiresome thanks to the threadbare content.
Although the still-living Pythons are listed among the principal cast, their presence is fleeting. A few live-action clips are dropped in to remind us of what the fuss is really all about, but this feels like a rip off of the Python name from beyond the grave.
Cloud Atlas ****
Directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski / Germany
Could Atlas, from the book of the same name by David Mitchell, is an epic both in its running time (164 minutes), the complexity of its six interwoven plots, and its philosophical reach. I will not begin to attempt a précis, and you can read lots about both versions of the story on other sites.
I came to the movie knowing little more than the writeup in the TIFF guide, and chose this as part of my festival package based on the directors and their past work. Many will see the cinema version, like me, without having read the book, or at most a synopsis. The movie should and does stand on its own.
The story begins in the distant future (although it could also be read as the distant past) . A man sitting at a fire telling a legend to an audience we will see much later, at the end of the movie, but in effect to us. This leads us into the subplots (for which see the Wikipedia summary of the book) where the principal actors appear in various, but related roles. Some are always malevolent, others are befuddled, some are kind, and this ties in with the theme of reincarnation or karma, that what one does in this life carries on to the next. In Cloud Atlas, this happens on a grand scale with the interlinked lives of many characters over time ranging from 1850 to centuries in the future after the fall of civilization to a pre-technological state. Among the actors, I was particularly fond of Jim Broadbent whose roles provide comic relief, and Hugo Weaving who gets to be an eeevil character in many lifetimes.
The book tells the stories sequentially, but the movie cuts back and forth between them so that the audience must follow all the threads at once. To me, the editing is the strongest part of Cloud Atlas sustaining the pace (including multiple crises in the plot lines simultaneously). The actors work as a company. Tom Hanks may get top billing, but this isn’t a “Tom Hanks” movie. It is very much the product of the three directors.
Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis split directorial duties with Tykwer taking three of the six subplots. It’s impossible to watch the Wachowskis’ take on “An Orison of Somni-451” without seeing echos of The Matrix and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but this segment is not just about effects. Playing on the same model of two world views (the real and the synthetic) we saw in The Matrix, it also shows the beginnings of a self-destructing world whose aftermath will come in the final segment. To their credit, the directors do not allow this segment (or any others) to pull focus from the others. The play between time periods, comedy and tragedy, moments of quiet tenderness and high drama, all work together.
The underlying premise that “everything is connected” is the tagline in promotional material and is driven home, almost too heavily, in the extended trailer (available among other places on the IMDB website). Fortunately I had not seen this trailer before the screening, and did not feel pummeled by the need to believe the philosophy, to make it my own, as a precondition of watching the story. The connections are there, but they feel better as something one discovers on reflection.
Opens October 26.
Thank you for the reviews, Steve. I’m looking forward to your next batch.