Monkey See
3:09 am
Sat September 7, 2013

Toronto International Film Festival, Days One And Two

Two days into the Toronto International Film Festival, I'm 10 films in. We'll talk more about all of these later, but it seemed only fair to share some basic impressions, since I'm certainly logging the seat time to earn them. So here are the 10 I've seen so far.

Closed Curtain (directed by Jafar Panahi and Kambozia Partovi; screenplay by Panahi): Iranian director Panahi is still under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for producing "propaganda" — just as he was when he released the 2011 documentary This Is Not A Film, which chronicled his life under arrest. Closed Curtain is not a documentary, but it is certainly still the story of Panahi's life of seclusion and creativity, and to say more than that about the plot would be unfair. Interested in the internal lives of writers and filmmakers as well as the daily choice between struggling and giving up to despair, Closed Curtain is both very personal and blisteringly political, and it also stars the best dog you'll see at the movies for quite some time.

Child's Pose (directed by Calin Peter Netzer; screenplay by Netzer and Razvan Radulescu): The well-off Cornelia is a controlling, intrusive mother to her adult son Barbu and his live-in girlfriend (whom, naturally, Cornelia despises). When Barbu is involved in a tragic turn of events, it's terrible for her, but it's also her big chance to swing into action to protect him. Darkly funny at times, it's a tale of bad parenting combining with bad police work.

The Past (directed by Asghar Farhadi; screenplay by Farhadi): A tense drama about a woman (Berenice Bejo, The Artist) whose divorce is much, much more complicated than it initially appears. Farhadi (who made the Oscar-winning A Separation) turns to different parts of the story at different moments; sometimes it appears to be about the wife, sometimes the husband, sometimes the wife's new love. It's ultimately very affecting and very, very complicated — which is a good thing.

Blood Ties (directed by Guillaume Canet; screenplay by Canet and James Gray): Canet is a French director (whose Tell No One is a very creepy thriller indeed) doing a very American story here about a pair of brothers in the 1970s, one a cop (Billy Crudup) and one a crook (Clive Owen). This kind of good brother/bad brother business is very, very well-covered territory, and there's not a lot in this presentation of it that's new. The film winds up being largely an opportunity to see various people attempt strong Brooklyn accents, including Owen, Mila Kunis, and Matthias Schoenaerts (who was in Rust & Bone here last year). It's not a great sign that it's literally very difficult to tell whether Marion Cotillard is supposed to sound French or Brooklyn; ultimately, it seems she's supposed to be Italian. I think. This one has some problems.

The Fifth Estate (directed by Bill Condon; screenplay by Josh Singer): If you imagine what a very, very inoffensive Hollywood version of the story of Wikileaks and Julian Assange might look like, you would come very close to seeing The Fifth Estate in your head. The screenplay is an impatient blunt instrument, constantly stating and restating its themes instead of allowing them to breathe through the story. Benedict Cumberbatch does his best as Assange, but he's forced to spend so much time delivering movie dialogue that could only be movie dialogue that he has little chance to succeed. Furthermore, the film — which reads at times like a near-copy of The Social Network — is further proof that Hollywood has not cracked the problem of making it exciting to watch people work on computers, no matter how gimmicky you get about it.

Most importantly, the film's determination to have no point of view about Assange or his work will infuriate both people who admire him and people who despise him, meaning it's a film about a polarizing figure that can satisfy only people with no strong opinions.

The Lunchbox (directed by Ritesh Batra; screenplay by Batra): What a lovely, charming film this is. Irrfan Khan (the adult Pi in Life Of Pi, among many, many other things) plays Saajan, a lonely widower who accidentally begins receiving box lunches from Ila, who means to be sending them to her cold husband in an effort to thaw his heart. The two wind up exchanging letters. It's a very simple story — I heard a couple of people complain that they found it sleepy to watch at 8:30 in the morning — but enormously warm and subtle, and Khan is just a dream to watch. Sony Pictures Classics has snapped this one up, so I'm dearly hoping you'll indeed get a chance to see it. (And avoid the icky American remake that doesn't exist yet but to which my heart already feels doomed.)

Jodorowky's Dune (directed by Frank Pavich): You perhaps know that David Lynch made a poorly received film version of the Frank Herbert science fiction classic Dune. But before that, there was considerable planning for a version to be directed by the very offbeat director Alejandro Jodorowsky, with the help of artists like H.R. Giger and others who were ultimately involved in a little cult film you may have heard of called Alien. Jodorowsky planned to cast Orson Welles and Mick Jagger, and that's only the beginning. This documentary argues that even though the project never went ahead, its planning and drawings influenced films that came later. You may believe to a greater or lesser degree the claimed lines between Dune and other specific shots and movies, but it's certainly a great tale, and Jodorowsky is a fine subject.

Rush (directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Peter Morgan): It's possible that a person more into Formula One racing would be thoroughly thrilled by Howard's look at rivals James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). For me, it's the very definition of "fine." It's fine! It's enjoyable, and the racing scenes are aces. But the story of these two men remains a bit opaque, not as capable of carrying a drama as everyone involved seems to be hoping.

Made In America (directed by Ron Howard): This documentary looks at the 2012 Made In America music festival, conceived by Jay Z and featuring everybody from Janelle Monae to Passion Pit to Skrillex. Like a lot of festival documentaries, it's very uneven, but when it comes to cable, look for the lovely Pearl Jam singalong and the part where the history of Run-D.M.C.'s "Walk This Way" is told. (Full disclosure: It may very well have a great finale; I missed the last third or so to head to another film.)

Prisoners (directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski): Suspenseful, scary, upsetting thriller starring Hugh Jackman as the father of a daughter who goes missing and Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop working on the case. That makes it sound sort of clichéd, perhaps like something Mel Gibson would make in a weak moment, but Prisoners is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who made the great and shattering Incendies a couple of years ago. And while Prisoners is less devastating than that film was, it's plenty wrenching, and the performances are excellent. It gives up enough that I guessed some secrets before I was supposed to, but I wound up not minding all that much.

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