September 12, 2010

Day 3 of John Foote's Toronto Film Festival Diary!

A few years ago a film entitled Stranger Than Fiction (2006) was here at TIFF which displayed an entirely different side to Will Ferrell, best known as a comedic actor, here tackling a dramatic role for the first time. Ferrell was very good in the film, and impressed more than a few film critics (myself included) with his acting chops. Of course his recent performance as President George W. Bush on HBO makes it clear that when he puts his mind to it, he is a gifted actor capable of doing great comedic work. One of the joys of TIFF is finding out something new about an actor or a director, when they tackle something outside their comfort zone, and incredibly, make it work. Just a few days ago Chris Cooper said to me that the industry often pigeon holes actors into doing the same sort of performance and film over and over and over, and that since winning his Oscar for Adaptation (2002) has never been offered anything remotely like that part again. Ferrell is often in danger of getting stuck in that rut, doing the same sort of character over and over, when clearly there is a character actor waiting to break out.
Ferrell has done it again, in a film not as good as Stranger Than Fiction, though his performance may be better, darker, and more complex than that one.
In his new film film, Everything Must Go, directed by Dan Rush, comedian Will Ferrell gives a strong performance as an alcoholic, fired from his job, kicked out of his home by his wife, and left with only his possessions scattered on his front lawn. The entire premise of the film is how he deals with this, how he comes to recognize that his life is not over and he has the strength to carry on. Ferrell handles the angry man portrayal quite well, proving that his work in Stranger Than Fiction (2006) was no fluke. In fact, I dare say this is his best work onscreen...period. This is Ferrell's first foray into the independent filmmaking scene, the actor offered a role that goes against the grain of just about everything he has done.
His character could be a dislikable sort, and indeed Ferrell goes in that direction, capturing the anger of a man who has allowed, through drink and foolish acts, his life to spiral out of control. I cannot remember Ferrell ever portraying such self loathing so brilliantly before, as deep down he knows he is his own worst enemy, but lacks the courage to do anything about it, perhaps because it is his very own misery. People on such a downward dive often have nothing more than their misery, and they covet and protect it, because they somehow understand it is the one thing they do control. Their anger grows, they lash out at anyone around them, and are cruel because they feel they do not deserve any decent treatment or kindness. However there is something so inherently likable within Ferrell it is impossible to completely dislike the character. We see him do some very stupid things, we see him at his very worst, but we also know what he is going through and what he is up against. He's not a bad guy, not at all, he's just in a bad way.
The film itself suffers from being rather one note, though. Once his character is established on the front lawn, the other characters are introduced, it all becomes a tad redundant, despite some strong performances from Ferrell and Rebecca Hall. She brings a lovely winsome presence to the film as a pregnant neighbor, having just moved in, getting a rather shocking introduction to Ferrell. He hits the nail right on the head when he states that she could be looking at her future, but she sees something more in him, and will not let his defeatist attitude get to her. In the moment of the darkest despair of his life, betrayed by someone he truly admired and trusted, he manages to find hope and go on.
Based on a short story by Raymond Chandler, "Why Don't You Dance?", the director-writer Rush knew at once upon reading the story that this would be his first feature. Knowing he needed a strong actor for the part of Nick, who is in virtually every scene in the film, Rush thought of no one else but Ferrell. Knowing that the character had some irredeemable qualities about him, he believed that Ferrell's likability would help with the impact of the film and allow the audience to care about the character.
Rush was right in his casting, no question. Where he fails, I think is in the execution of the story, which lacks urgency and desperation. This guy is out of his home, fired, his car taken away...he is at rock bottom, and yet the film moves casually along. Rush is very fortunate to have Ferrell in the film, an actor interesting enough to keep the audience watching and caring about the character.
The one piece of casting I struggled with was Christopher "CJ" Wallace, who is a thirteen year old kid who becomes over a few days Ferrell's best friend and business partner. There is a lack of chemistry between the pair, and though it does not impact the performance of Ferrell, it does cause the scenes with the youngster to lack a degree of realism. There is just something inauthentic about his work that stands out among the other actors, who live and breathe the characters.
The press audience enjoyed the film, though they seemed to enjoy Ferrell much more. He is the driving force of the film.

The American remake of the brilliant Danish horror film Let the Right One in (2007) is Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves who gave us the horror flick Cloverfield (2009). With strong buzz floating around this picture, many in the audience were openly discussing the original, wondering if the director of the remake could match that first one. Suffice to say he does, though I cannot say I agree with other critics stating that this new film surpasses the original. Certainly more money was spent in the making, and the production values are stronger, but that first picture had a stark and cold horror that this new one does not have. It's very scary, don't get me wrong, but there is an under current of sadness to this one that I did not find in the first.
Almost a shot for shot remake of the film, the picture is an unsettling, chilling tale of a young American boy and the twelve (more or less she says) year old vampire girl he befriends when she moves into his apartment complex. He is struggling with the nasty divorce of his parents, seeking to belong in a school where he is the target of a relentless bully, and looking for something to happen in his life that might interest him. The girl, Abby, tells him from the beginning, "we can't be friends" yet their friendship nonetheless evolves, slowly, as a trust builds between the two of them. We see glimpses into each of their lives and, in their own very different way, each is an outsider. She for her need for human blood, he because he is different than the other kids and targeted by a particular group of boys who openly despise him.
When her protector dies she is forced to reveal more and more of herself to the boy, who though initially horrified, still understands Abby is the girl underneath it all, and cannot help what she is any more than his mother can help what she is. As a police detective, nicely portrayed by Elias Koteas gets closer and closer to discovering Abby's secret, the boy learns just how far he will go to protect his friend, monster or not.
In the original film, there were no glowing eyes, no changes to the girl throughout the film, which I admired. I have always admired Stephen King's book Salem's Lot in which the vampires' facial features never change, they remain the same and their eyes of pools of darkness. Sadly, the director Reeves has chosen to allow Abby's features to become more and more monster like as she feeds, which to me lessened the impact of the horror. How much more terrifying would it be to see that sweet faced girl feasting on blood, than the green eyed beast we see? It is the wrong move from a director who obviously has great regard for the original and does virtually everything right until that moment. Not that it ruins the film, the picture is too strong for that to happen, and the performances far too outstanding.
Richard Jenkins is the child's protector, her father she calls him, and her connection to food. He kills people and drains their blood so the girl may feed. When one of his killings goes terribly wrong, he pours acid over his face so he is unrecognizable and will not be caught. Abby comes to him in the hospital, and he offers her his blood, before he falls to the ground dead. Without a protector, she is left to find blood for herself, and when the boy tries to make them blood "friends" she goes berserk, lapping up his blood from the ground, before attacking a woman in the apartment complex. This brings the police, and Abby is forced to move on. Or so the boy believes. She is watching him from afar, and is finally his protector from the bullies who terrorize him, leaving a swimming pool awash in blood and body parts. Knowing they cannot escape this series of murders, the boy makes a life altering decision that will impact them both, but keep them together.
When a film is placed on the shoulders of actors so young it is a huge risk for the director, and must weigh on his mind during the making of the film. However when the child actors are as strong as they are in this film, the director has no worries. Initially when I heard Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road (2009) was going to portray the boy in the film I was concerned as I did not care for his work in that apocalyptic work, believing it to be forced and immature. Yet he has grown as an actor, and grounds this film with a fine and strong piece of acting. His beautiful liquid eyes are so utterly soulful, and his feelings for Abby worn on his sleeve.
As Abby, young Chloe Grace Mortez, is otherworldly. His wise eyes seems ancient, and yet there is a childlike quality to her, "I like puzzles", she tells his friend, not realizing, (or perhaps knowing) he is trying to solve the puzzle that is Abby. She knows what she is, she knows she could kill the boy in a heartbeat, but does not, because despite her belief she cannot have a friend, she knows he is hers.
The attacks are quite startling, as she suddenly moves with extraordinary speed, leaping around like a vicious lynx attacking her prey, and there is no shortage of blood. Yet this is also a film about an evolving friendship, and a deep love between two children.
Though many doubted Matt Reeves, he more than pulled this off, giving us a film that will do very well at the box office and provide audiences with some genuine thrills this fall. Hopefully, the success of this new picture will not cause audiences to forget the original, because it remains a chilling exercise in terror, and that young girls' face haunts the landscape of my mind.


September 11, 2010

Day 2 of John Foote's Toronto Film Festival Diary!

Here you go:

Oscar buzz swept through TIFF today.
Several writers have already gone on the record as stating that “The King’s Speech” will win the Academy Award as Best Picture, and after seeing this mesmerizing work from Emmy Award winner (“John Adams”) director Tom Hooper, I am inclined to agree with them that the film will dominate the race with multiple nominations. Further I suspect Colin Firth will be this years Best Actor winner for his superb performance as King George VI, who suffered a speech impediment for much of his early, finally seeking help from Lionel Logue shortly before he became King. Logue, portrayed by the great Geoffrey Rush, understood that with impediments there are usually emotional issues at the core of the issue, but finds the monarch reluctant to let him into his personal life. Only when a bond is forged, trust develops and the King finds that this subject is very much his friend is the monarch at ease. Hooper creates a marvelous film brimming with energy and urgency, plunging his audience into the years leading up to Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany and Hitler. It is not a perfect film, though. I struggled throughout with Timothy Spall as WInston Churchill, especially after the two superb performances by Albert Finney and Bredan Gleason on HBO in separate films about Churchill. Perhaps Spall is simply too identifiable an actor for the role…I know I could not get by it, though that is a minor quibble.

On the city streets, in the line ups around the festival and in the press office, all they are talking about is “The King’s Speech“.

Oscar awaits.

The last time Darren Aronofsky was here was for The Wrestler (2008) which landed Mickey Rourke in the Oscar race for Best Actor, along with changing the course of his career, and I suspect the star of his new film, “Black Swan“, will end up a Best Actress nominee. Natalie Portman, long considered a gifted actress, finally has a role that seizes upon her substantial talents as an actress, and a director willing to push her to the limit. Portman is excellent in this thriller set in the cut throat world of ballet, where young women leave behind their childhoods in search of a career in the spotlight of the worlds great ballets. The actress has rarely been tested like this by her director, “Closer” (2004), perhaps the only exception, and she rises to the occasion with a mesmerizing performance, matched by the dark Mila Kunis, as a rival ballerina with a dark side. Cross Aronofksy’s “Requeim for a Dream” (2000) with this, and you get the picture; a visual knockout, with superb performances throughout, and one of the films everyone is talking about.

David Schwimmer spent a long time on television as Ross on Friends. While on the show, did anyone ever believe he would become a formidable filmmaker? HIs new film “Trust“, is as dark a film as one can get, and the director handles it beautifully, creating an intimate family drama in which a family goes through every parents nightmare. Annie (Liana LIberato) is given a new laptop for her fourteenth birthday and at once connects with a fifteen year old boy, who she later learns is twenty, and who it turns out is much older than that. He suggests they meet, and takes her to a hotel where he assults her. Only Annie does not believe it was rape, she believes they are in love. She cannot understand her father’s rage, her mother’s emtional devastation or the involvement of the FBI. As events sprial more and more out of control, Annie is placed in the very adult worl of having to discover realities she is not ready to deal with.

Schwimmer directs his actors with the assuredness of a long time veteran, and never makes a false step as a director. The film is alarming in its intensity and realism, frightening in what it is saying, and terrifying in its realism. Clive Owen is excellent as a father who believes he failed to protect his child, while Catherine Keener is equally good as a mother who needs to nurture and heal her child, but has no idea how. The revelation in the film is Liberato, just astounding as Annie, the child who gets into a world she is simply not prepared to inhabit. A cautionary tale that is also a character study that is also a brilliant thriller, with a moment over the end credits that will chill you to your very soul. The film will be a tough one to market, but deserves an audience for its topical subject matter, and the powerful manner in which the director and his cast deliver their message.

Another actor behind the camera, Ben Affleck proved that he is the real deal with “The Town“, an excellent film with powerhouse performances from the ensemble cast, and I must highlight it again. When a bank robbery goes very wrong and a hostage is taken and then released, the robbers find their worlds being torn apart. One of them, portrayed with ferocious intensity by Jeremy Renner believes he can end it all with violence, while his good friend, portrayed by Affleck, sees a chance to get out of the life of crime and have a real life with love and family. That alarms Renner because he wonders how far his friend will go to be honest and who he will take down along the way. Affleck is brilliant at times behind the camera, and damned good in front of it this time as well, but the movie belongs to Renner, superb as a dangerous criminal threatened with everything he knows coming to an end. I mentioned the film once already, but it’s worth mentioning again…

Chris Cooper turns up in a single scene and all but steals the film. Affleck obviously loves his actors and they revere him equally as a director, doing tremendous work for him. ”The Town” will do boffo business when released, though I doubt it will have an impact come awards season.


Day 1 of John Foote's Toronto Film Festival Diary!

Here's John's report:

What a busy day to start off the Toronto Film Festival!!! Having covered the fest for fifteen years I have a set pattern, but damned if they haven’t moved everything on me and screwed me up!!! More on that later.

Three films got me started with the TIFF, including the goofy night Opening Night Gala, Score: A Hockey Musical, which left me all but giddy. That said, I am not sure who else will want to see the movie, as it does not appeal to hockey purists and musical lovers may be put off by the manner of dance and song. However, merging some of what is going on with TV’s Glee, with some Busby Berkley, and singing and dancing, the filmmaker did an excellent job of making an entertaining film that likely has little reach beyond these borders. Hockey remains our passion up here, and we still wait for that great dramatic film about out sport, or a biography of one of the greats. The excellent Quebec film The Rocket (2006) accomplished at least a part of that a few years ago.

Despite a powerful performance from Edward Norton, Stone goes nowhere fast, taking on every cliche used or seen in a prison film. The plot contains a development so incredibly ludicrous, irresponsible and unprofessional by Robert De Niro’s character (who has given no indication he would fall for such nonsense) that we wanted to scream at the movie screen for him to stop!!! It just does not work for the story, and yet despite that the performances in the film are very good. Norton gets off to a great start as his character goes through a sort of spiritual rebirth, losing none of his menace by the end. His tale to De Niro (who portrays a parole counselor) of how he felt about his crime is chilling, and it is our first peek behind his mask. De Niro is a strange bird, as we see through flashbacks the bizarre control he exerts over his wife. We know his daughter will not talk to him (we see it) and that the marriage is a terrible mess, but he seems like a religious man, a decent man behind the drink that is constantly in his hand at home. I just did not buy that the De Niro character would get trapped in the manner he did, or that he would allow himself to go so off protocol to help someone…anyone. God, the entire film paints him as a selfish brute…why help anyone???

The Town is quite good, another solid directorial effort from Ben Affleck, who is growing into a fine filmmaker. This time there are echoes of early Friedkin in his work, gritty and authentic, displaying a deft touch with his actors, who clearly trust their director. Jeremy Renner is superb as a trigger happy hot head member of the bank robbing gang, who blows a gasket during the robbery and takes a hostage, releasing her almost at once, but not before the event has traumatized her. Hoping to get it all out of mind, Affleck follows her, befriends and then falls in love with her, seeing for the first time a chance at an honest life. This enrages the dangerous Renner. In order to keep her safe, Affleck must betray the gang, and in doing so they will both become targets. The performances are terrific, especially Renner and the great Chris Cooper as Affleck’s father, settled and truthful in his work. Affleck, often mocked as an actor, does an excellent job here on screen as well as behind the camera. This is a solid movie, one that with the right sort of push from the studio could be heard from come Oscar time.
Very hectic day overall as it seems the entire festival has moved south in the city closer to the new festival home the Bell Lightbox. We no longer frequent the lovely Varisty Theatre for our screenings, as the Scotia Bank Theatre is much closer so there was some fumbling to get around a bit. I found that the Richmond/John area is not as taxi cab friendly as the rest of the city, so there was some walking involved (remember I walk with a cane and constant pain) and I paid dearly for the extra walking last night. My friends and allies in pain management (Oxycontin and Percoset) took away the pain for the night but it is back this morning and I can take a bit to take the edge off. Worth it for the movies man…so worth it.