September 18, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: Toronto Film Festival Recap

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Here are capsule summaries of all this year’s SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival reviews, arranged more or less in order of preference.  Click on each title for the full review, and the complete list of all the reviews is here
SHAME:  Audiences who go to the new film by Steve McQueen (not that one) for its certain NC-17 rating are in for a disappointment:  Michael Fassbinder and Carey Mulligan play tortured siblings who, in very different ways, use sex to salve their emotional wounds, and the result is far from erotic.  Both actors give scorching performances in an utterly uncompromising work of art. 
TAKE THIS WALTZSarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her is another elegiac story of troubled marriage and the quest for romantic fulfillment, this time rooted in younger characters and a rich, yet more prosaic reality.  Michelle Williams is brilliant, which is no surprise, but that Seth Rogen keeps step with her is something of a shock.  Polley’s visual and aural filmmaking skills have only grown since her directing debut. 
MONEYBALLWhat seemed to be the impossibly abstract subject of a baseball team’s change in player acquisition strategies becomes a mostly thrilling movie in the hands of screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, and director Bennett Miller.  Brad Pitt has never been better than as the A’s General Manager Billy Beane, and he and Jonah Hill as his go-to guy make the most adorable acting team of the year.

50/50It was a remarkably good festival for Seth Rogen, who’s an integral part of this often hilarious, and as often moving and truthful, fictionalized story of his real-life friendship with screenwriter Will Reiser, who was stricken with cancer while in his 20s.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the fictional version of Reiser, and scores his first great leading role in Jonathan Levine’s pitch-perfect comedy-drama.
YOUR SISTER’S SISTERLynn Shelton follows Humpday with another appealing, incisive and very funny mumblecore dramatic farce about relationships.  Mark Duplass, as a guy who finds himself in uncomfortable positions with two sisters, is a cornerstone of this kind of semi-improvisational film, but the surprise is that Rosemary DeWitt and Emily Blunt, refugees from the land of scripts, form such a marvelous ensemble with him as the sisters in question.
DRIVENicolas Winding Refn’s existential crime movie is studied and referential, but that doesn’t make it (much) less thrilling.  Ryan Gosling is a charismatic Driver With No Name, Albert Brooks a shockingly good villain, the chase scenes are both low-key and spectacular, and watch out for the violence, because Refn may be quoting, but he isn’t kidding.
THE DESCENDANTS:  Alexander Payne’s follow-up, after 7 long years, to Sideways is an entertaining and emotionally satisfying story that isn’t quite up to his highest standards.  George Clooney manages to be marvelous in the lead and yet somewhat miscast, as an ordinary guy who finds out his comatose wife had been having an affair, and Shailene Woodley, as his angry teen daughter, is a huge find.
BUTTERIt’s Little Miss Sunshine meets Smile meets Election meets a Funny Or Die sketch, and it all works better than you’d expect.  Jennifer Garner plays Sarah Palin Michelle Bachmann a ruthless competitor in a butter carving competition, who finds that her most dangerous foe is an angelic 10-year old
African-American foster child, and Olivia Wilde has all the best lines as a wickedly smart stripper with a grudge..
TEN YEARFamiliar territory from writer-director Jamie Linden, but very well done, as a high school class gathers for its 10-year reunion.  The wonderful ensemble cast includes Channing Tatum as the guy who still has a thing for his high school sweetheart (Rosario Dawson), Chris Pratt as the one who becomes an imbecile when he drinks (and Ari Graynor as the wife who has to control him), Justin Long and Max Minghella as the two who never grew up, and Kate Mara as the girl whose old boyfriend (Oscar Isaac) had a huge hit song that she’s somehow never managed to hear. 
THE IDES OF MARCHThe other George Clooney movie at the festival–the one he directed himself– (not to mention the other Ryan Gosling movie) makes substantial changes in the original play Farragut North that aren’t for the better, but still has some crackling scenes and an amazing cast:  apart from the two leads, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood give a collective acting class.
THE RAIDThere’s hardly any substance to this Indonesian action movie, but who cares?  A small squad of double-crossed cops have to try to survive their way up to an apartment building’s top floor, where a crime boss is waiting for them, and practically every room of the place houses a gasp-inducing, to-the-death fight scene.  One bit with a broken light-bulb will forever change the way you look at fixtures.
THE ARTIST:  Michel Hazanavicius’ charming oddity:  a brand-new, almost completely silent movie (also in black and white and shot in the old 1:1.33 TV set aspect ratio) about, well, the end of silent movies.  To some extent it’s getting overpraised for its sheer audacity, but no question that it’s a beautifully realized curiosity, with a marvelous star performance by Jean Dujardin at its center.
ALBERT NOBBSThis year’s movie for people who’ve been missing James Ivory’s films of the 1980s and 90s.  Rodrigo Garcia’s costume drama features Glenn Close, in a performance that’s a model of restraint, as an Irish butler in the late 19th Century who’s an ordinary man in almost every way… except for his actually being a woman.  With Janet McTeer as another impersonator, and a fine supporting cast that includes Brandan Gleeson, Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson. 
THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTHPawel Pawlikowski makes lovely movies in miniature like My Summer of Love, and here he turns to a more brain-twisting mode.  Ethan Hawke is a troubled English professor who’s come to France to try and see his young daughter, but when his distraught ex-wife won’t let him anywhere near the girl, he has to take a mysteriously menacing job for a shady landlord, and then there’s something odd about the new woman in his life (Kristin Scott Thomas as her enigmatically sleek best).
SLEEPLESS NIGHTThe US remake of this French thriller should be even better (assuming they don’t screw it up), but the concept is already irresistible:  a crooked cop’s theft of coke from a crime boss leads to his son being kidnapped, and when the cop tries to return the drugs and get the boy back, he’s double-and triple-crossed, and has to make his way, Die Hard-like, through the villian’s massive nightclub complex, desperately trying to save his son’s life and his own.  The words “non-stop action” scarcely do justice to the pace.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESSAfter 13 years, the Whit Stillman of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco is back, more epigrammatic and idiosyncratic than ever.  Greta Gerwig plays the leader of a group of college girls who dress circa Three Coins In the Fountain, attempt to dissuade possible suicides by feeding them donuts, and have a policy of only dating stupid boys.  Oh, and there are dance numbers.  Stillman is an acquired taste, but there’s no one else in the world of film like him.
SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMENOne of the few large acquisitions of the festival (bought by CBS Films reportedly for around $5M), this is a likable but fairly bland romantic comedy with a title that isn’t metaphorical:  Ewan McGregor plays a fisheries expert recruited by a Yemeni sheik’s representative (Emily Blunt) to introduce salmon to the Yemen River for fishing purposes.  Once it’s clear that McGregor and Blunt’s characters rub each other the wrong way, there’s no suspense about where it’s all going, but the movie’s secret weapon is Kristin Scott Thomas as a government PR woman; she makes the most routine dialogue sound like a succession of classic zingers,
HICKMelodrama aplenty in Derick Martini’s follow-up to Lymelife.  Chloe Moretz from Kick-Ass plays a 13-year old in the 1970s who goes on the road and learns far more about life than she ever wished to know.  Eddie Redmayne and a surprisingly effective Blake Lively are her teachers, and the result is pretty rough–and according to the co-screenwriter, partly autobiographical, which is scary. 
360The new film by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) is an expertly made drama about very little.  The title refers both to the film’s circular structure–character A meets character B, who has an encounter with character C, all the way till Z meets A–and to the Earth, around which the various stories are set.  Some fine acting by an ensemble that includes Anthony Hopkins, Rachel Weisz, Jude Law and many more, but 360 can also refer to the dimensions of a handsome, beautifully scored Zero.
RAMPARTOren Moverman’s film, co-written with novelist James Ellroy, starts out strong but then goes nowhere.  Woody Harrelson heads a first-rate cast (Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Anne Heche, and Cynthia Nixon, among others) as a cop who’s both victimizer and victim at the time of the LA Rampart scandal; the plotline only gets murkier and less involving as the movie goes on.
THE DEEP BLUE SEAHeartfelt but dull.  Terence Davies’ film of Terence Rattigan’s mid-20th Century play is all misery and repressed emotion; when the most exciting sequence in a movie is a failed suicide attempt, it’s time to find a Michael Bay picture.  Rachel Weisz and Simon Russell Beale give fully realized performances as two of the miserable, even though their faces are often sunk in cinematographic darkness.
INTO THE ABYSSA fairly straightforward documentary by Werner Herzog, about some senseless killings, the equally senseless execution of one of the killers, and the sadness it all causes to everyone involved, from the families to the prison guards.  The film, composed mostly of talking head interviews, seems to accomplish what it intended to do, but without any particular revelations.
RESTLESSA very twee piece of death-fetish hokum from Gus Van Sant.  Mia Wasikowska has the kind of brain tumor that kills you while causing no physical effect whatsoever apart from a pixie haircut; her boyfriend, played by Henry Hopper (Dennis’ son), attends strangers’ funerals for fun and has as his sidekick the ghost of a dead Japanese kamikaze pilot.  Everyone involved needed to throw out their DVDs of Harold and Maude.
PEACE, LOVE AND MISUNDERSTANDINGIf the idea of Jane Fonda as a pot-smoking, anti-war, moon-worshipping, free-love grandma living in Woodstock, NY amuses you, here’s your movie.  Add to that Catherine Keener as Fonda’s conservative, disapproving, tight-lipped daughter who comes for a visit when her marriage falls apart and–who would have guessed?–gradually loosens up, and you have a TV pilot for a series that please God will never see the air.  The saddest sight of all is Elizabeth Olsen, brilliant in Martha Marcy May Marlene, reduced to playing a vegetarian who falls for a sensitive butcher.
W.E.Madonna’s 2-hour ad for various clothing, furniture and jewelry designers is about as swankly idiotic as a movie can be.  Technically it’s about a mystical bond that forms between a very rich, dissatisfied New York psychiatrist’s wife in the 1990s, and Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom Edward VII abdicated the throne, but really it’s a piece of conspicuous consumption porn about the glorious things all of them wear and own, and how sad it is to be rich and famous.  
THE INCIDENTOne of those “based on a true story” horror cheapies:  a very long hour spent with an aspiring rock band in the late 1980s who work in the kitchen of an asylum for the criminally insane, while we wait for the damn electricity to go out so they can start being slaughtered.  Which, in the last half-hour, they gruesomely are.  Fun!
THE MOTH DIARIESA dismal gothic thriller that would be discarded by the CW without even paying for the optional polish.  Mary Harron’s dull, incomprehensible story is set at a girls’ school, where our heroine (Sarah Bolger) is targeted by the vampiric new Mean Girl (Lily Cole), who speaks like she’s reading cue cards and attracts (or maybe is?) many moths. 
TWIXTA special place of honor belongs to Francis Ford Coppola, for bringing Toronto the worst piece of work in his entire long and distinguished career.  A stew of musicvideo visual techniques from 1995, incoherent plotting, acting that resembles a horror parody from SCTV, occasional 3D, and some overt self-parody.  Coppola explained that it all came from a dream he’d had, but he turned it into an audience nightmare.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."