Starting Friday, Noel Murray and I will be blogging our way through the Toronto Film Festival for 10 glorious days (nine for Noel, the lightweight). What does this mean for us? Five films a day, writing sessions well into the early morning, and dangerously little sleep. What’s in it for you? Daily reports on what looks to be one of the strongest festival in years. Just some of the big names in play: David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, Ang Lee, the Coen Brothers, Noah Baumbach, Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Woody Allen, Todd Haynes, Brian De Palma, George Romero, Sidney Lumet, Francois Ozon, Werner Herzog, Bela Tarr, Peter Greenaway, Roy Andersson, Catherine Breillat… the list goes on and on. Plus those inevitable buzz items from not-yet-pedigreed auteurs that will have us frantically rearranging our schedules.
If you're looking for gossip about parties and celebrity sightings, you've come to the wrong place. (I've been going to the festival for eight years and I've never been to a single party—not that I'm anti-social necessarily, but there are 300+ movies to see and the two I'd skip to go could potentially be masterpieces. Plus, those parties are loud, overcrowded, and packed with trendy showbiz types who couldn't give a damn about film. Or at least, that's how I imagine them to be.) Noel and I may take note of some incidental occurances, but the only real local color and "festival atmosphere" come when we're hastily shoveling down noodles and corner sausages between shows. We're always humbled by the courtesy and hospitality of our Canadian friends, but for all intents and purposes, "Toronto" is a red-velvet-draped eight-plex with stadium seating. In our commitment to keep you updated daily with double-barreled blog posts about the festival, we're going to run with a simple format, lifted from our friend (and Cyprus Mail critic) Theo Panayides: A "Film Of The Day," followed by quicker hits on the other films we saw that day, and maybe some random notes about things that happened outside the darkened theater. Given Toronto's status as the biggest and most important festival in North America, our coverage should give you some idea of how the rest of the film year (and the year after) might play out.
Before the festival even started, a handful of official selections were screened here in Chicago, many of them coming out later in the month. I won't spend much time on them here, since a proper review is likely to run within the next few weeks, but for accounting sake, I'll get them out of the way. (Note: If the month of September—usually a time for studios to dump their embarrassments—is this good, I'm highly optimistic about the months ahead.) Here we go:
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik): Every once in a while, the studio system breaks down and something truly artful and visionary accidentally sneaks out. Warner Brothers has spent the past year trying to figure out what to do with Andrew Dominik's poetic anti-Western, which has more in common with hazy '70s classics like McCabe And Mrs. Miller and The Hired Hand than the vulgar shoot 'em ups that usually pass for Westerns these days. The title (which I love) and the running time (which is earned) are both unwieldy, and the film lacks clear heroes and villains—Brad Pitt's Jesse James is an outlaw in repose, still a commanding presence, but aware that his legendary run is coming to an end; Casey Affleck's Robert Ford is, of course, considered a coward for shooting James in the back, but his mix of idolatry for the man and personal ambition makes him a thorny character, too. The film was apparently pulled from last year's release schedule due to poor test scores; for adventurous moviegoers, those scores should be considered a badge of honor. (A)
The Brave One (dir: Neil Jordan): This month's "classy" vigilante movie, compared to its miscreant cousin Death Sentence, but the two films have plenty in common: A hero (here Jodie Foster) driven to action by the death of a loved one and the failures of the justice system; a more or less responsible take on the soul-stripping consequences of revenge; and a conspicuously unrealistic sense of the way the real world works. (Could Jodie Foster in street clothes ever be mistaken for a street-walker? In this New York, apparently so.) But director Neil Jordan keep the atmosphere uncommonly sober for this type of thing, and the interplay between Foster and detective Terrence Howard (an amazing actor, despite his somewhat unprogressive views on feminine hygiene) is fascinating. Without giving anything away, I was most intrigued by the thought of how much Howard knows about Foster's activities. Also, Nicky Katt is third-billed, and you know how much I love Nicky Katt. (B)
Into The Wild (dir: Sean Penn): This is the story of Chris McCandless, a recent college graduate who donated all the money in his savings account to charity, changed his name to an alias, and took off to explore America's far-flung environmental extremes, from the Arizona desert to a grain farm in South Dakota to the Salton Sea in California—and, finally to inland Alaska, where his decomposed body was found by moose hunters in an area north of Mt. McKinley. There are a lot of different ways to look at McCandless' story, some of them less than charitable, given the not-entirely-inaccurate perception that McCandless went off half-cocked into an unforgiving environment. Penn's film, like Jon Krakauer's excellent book, takes a much kinder view of McCandless' adventures, which are in their way inspiring and a complete fulfillment of the life he revered in books by Thoreau and Jack London. (I wrote about the book at length here.) Yet Penn's assessment isn't as black-and-white as I'd feared, and it doesn't shy away from the pain and anger that motivated his journey at least as much as his yearning to be truly free. Also, Hal Holbrook is going to win an Oscar for sure. Sorry other Supporting Actor types— you picked the wrong year. (A-)
King Of California (dir. Mike Cahill): Cahill's whimsical indie movie about a daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) dealing with a certifiable father (Michael Douglas) and his hare-brained schemes is so slight that a stiff breeze could carry it off into the ether. But Douglas plays his Quixotic character with such elán that I was finally lowered my defenses, which are usually resistant to this sort of thing. I was also impressed by Cahill's evocative feeling for locale, as civilization and order encroaches on SoCal dreamers who don’t fit into their homogenous designs. In this way, it feels of a piece with the underrated Down In The Valley, which coincidentally also starred Wood. (B)
The Jane Austen Book Club (dir: Robin Swicord): In a nutshell: "Let me tell you how this Jane Austen novel relates to the banal goings-on in my own love life." Repeat six times. Fin. (C)
Much, much more to come on Friday…