TORONTO, ONTARIO—With any film festival I’ve attended, there are always tough decisions to make when it comes to what film I should see: considering whether you have a ticket or not, whether you can make it across town in enough time, and if you have the patience to wait in long, sometimes for over an hour (I got shut out of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method twice; more on that in next week’s post). Here's a recap of films I saw over the opening weekend.
The first film I caught was Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s disturbing and effective third film We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, and Ezra Miller, based on Lionel Shriver’s best selling novel. Eva (Swinton) is left with raising her son Kevin mostly alone (portrayed by three different actors as an infant, a young boy, and a teenager played by Miller) and the two don’t get along until dad (Reilly) shows up and he turns into a sweetheart. Eva shows support with Kevin even if he has written her off and has an element of Damien from The Omen in him. From the beginning we’re shown different perspectives of Eva’s life dealing with Kevin, but within the opening minutes, we know something devastating has happened as Eva is calling her husband wondering why he won’t answer his phone and she is shunned in town by locals, even to the extent of a women slapping her face and cursing her out. The story shifts from the present to the past at a drop of a hat as most of the film is told from Eva’s point of view. Ramsay’s film never lets its guard down in dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event, which has basically left Eva as the scapegoat. Ramsay uses solid colors throughout the film—mostly red, for obvious reasons—and carefully shows Eva’s struggles with many distorted camera shots. Swinton, again in top form as one of the best actresses working today, shows how milquetoast and vulnerable a mother can be at times dealing with a delinquent son; her performance is a quiet storm of discontent. We Need to Talk About Kevin opens in the Twin Cities in mid-December. Grade: A-
Rearranging my schedule after Kevin, proved to be essential (I was looking for a comedy) and little did I know the next film was from Norwegian director Jens Lien, who directed the David-Lynch-esque The Bothersome Man a few years earlier. His latest film, Sons of Norway, was average at best but still provided some much-needed laughs.
Sons of Norway has the making of a great coming-of-age story with the right formula, only to buckle under the weight of too much plot and trying a bit too hard to be quirky. Nikolaj (Asmund Hoeg) has a unique childhood being raised by Magnus (a terrific Sven Nordin) and his loving mother Lone (Sonja Richter), who have a banana-laden Christmas along with turkey with friends to celebrate their feast. Once Lone dies in a freak bike/car accident, Magnus must take care of Nikolaj and younger brother and doesn’t act like a responsible father. When Nikolaj discovers the Sex Pistols though a friend, he is determined to be a punk rocker and starts a band with his new friends (he even pierces his cheek with a safety pin, which many in the audience gasped at). Slowly Nikolaj realizes he is acting out because of his mother’s death and Magnus has become a pathetic father in trying to deal with his wife’s death too. Sons of Norway has many laughs but much of the story seems thrown together with different outrageous situations including an out-of-place cameo by Johnny Rotten (who was an executive producer on the film). In the end, Sons of Norway never really makes up its mind about what it wants to be: a touching coming-of-age story? A slapstick adventure? A commentary on the state of Norway in the late 1970s? Lien’s direction is solid but at the times the film takes too many chances on exploiting the family bond between the two and it's never determined whether they're trying to get by or are working on improving their bond for the future. (Sons of Norway currently has no US distribution.) Grade: C+
Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss, examines two inmates on death row in Texas. Herzog, who was present at the screening, said that many of his subjects interviewed in the film, he saw for less than an hour. He didn’t have questions prepared and wanted to ask everyone involved what their part in the crimes was. The two subjects on death row, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, are both in prison as part for a triple homicide (they wanted to steal a Camaro and ended up killing three people) that happened over ten years ago. Only Perry was to be receiving the death penalty—in eight days from the time of filming—while Burkett isn’t eligible for parole until 2041, when he’ll be 59 years old. Herzog spends time with the prison chaplain, family members, and Burkett’s wife, who married him while he was in prison and feels she has met her true love. Most surprisingly, a man responsible for strapping in the inmates before their execution gave some heartbreaking testimony. Herzog never appears on screen and uses no voiceover, but his questions range from the incidents of the killings to humorous moments talking with acquaintances, and he talks with police investigators involved in the case. There are similarities to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, although the evidence presented in Abyss seems to show that both Burkett and Perry are guilty and have decided to take different paths with their lives—especially when Burkett’s father, who is also incarcerated, speaks about his son. Into the Abyss is a compelling story of what others behind bars think about their futures; even if the film does seem rushed but given the amount of time Herzog had to spend with each inmate, it does provide engaging insight into the U.S. justice system and the question of whether or not capital punishment is right. (Into the Abyss has been picked up by IFC Films, but has no U.S. release date at this time.) Grade: B
One of the most anticipated films for me at the festival was Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, The Skin I Live In, which could be his darkest and most wicked film in years. It's based on Thierry Jonquet’s novella Tarantula. Almodóvar reteams with Antonio Banderas, their first collaboration in 21 years, showing Banderas in a sinister role in which he excels. A brilliant and wealthy plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Banderas), has discovered a new way of developing new human skin through animal genes; Ledgard, has found the perfect subject in Vera (the beautiful Elena Anaya), who he keeps locked up and watches through surveillance cameras every day with the help of his maid, the only one who knows his secret. As the story unfolds, we are shown flashbacks of how Vera and Robert met—one of the best twists in the film—and how they have become a couple through Ledgard’s experiments. All the usual Almodóvar motifs are featured throughout, use of colors in the décor of Ledgard’s home, string music influenced by Hitchcock films, bantering women discussing clothes, and sexual dialogue. Banderas is terrific—words I thought I’d never write—and Anaya is striking wearing a matching cream-colored skin suit throughout; watching her yoga poses is alternately mesmerizing and horrifying. (The Skin I Live In will be released in the Twin Cities in late October.) Grade: B+
Another film I was looking forward to after hearing great praise about it from the Cannes Film Festival in May was Michel Hazanavicius’s enormously entertaining The Artist. It not only left me excited about the joy of watching films, but was even better than advertised. George Valentin (French actor Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his career in 1927 Hollywood, the biggest silent film star working in Hollywood. Bumping into Valentin after one of his big premieres, Peppy Miller (Brazilian actress Berenice Bejo, also Hazanavicius's real-life wife) stumbles into a press photo and the headline in the Variety magazine the next day asks, “Who’s that girl?” Using the photo to her advantage, Peppy works her way into Valentin’s next film and slowly works her into other silent films. A few years later as the silent period begins to fade, the talkies are introduced and Peppy is now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood as Valentin’s career goes down the toilet. The Artist has no dialogue, features English title cards, is beautifully shot in black and white by cinematographer Guilliame Schiffman, and features terrific music by Ludovic Bource. Hazanavicius, who also wrote the script—or story—turns The Artist into a film filled with heart, laughs, drama, and movie magic going back to a time when silent films were king. Dujardin, best known for starring as a bumbling spy in both OSS 117 films, should get recognized at the end of year with some Best Actor nominations and possibly wins; this will be a performance everyone will be talking about, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Even Valentin’s Jack Terrier dog, which steals scenes from him especially, is great—and the best part is that it’s a film the whole family can enjoy, rare indeed these days. (The Artist will be released in the Twin Cities around Christmas.) Grade: A
Hard working writer/director Michael Winterbottom’s newest film, Trishna, is another film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic Tess of the D’Urbervilles—only this version is set in contemporary India and features the exquisite Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, Miral) in the lead role. Trishna is the oldest daughter working at a local resort nearby her house to support her family, when she meets Jay (Riz Ahmed). When Trishna’s father is hurt in a car accident, Jay offers Trishna the opportunity to work at one of his father’s hotels in Mumbai. A romantic connection happens and slowly breaks apart once Jay learns a secret about Trishna she has been hiding from him; soon after, their relationship turns sour. Winterbottom is a director whose films are completely different from one another (The Killer Inside Me, The Trip, Code 46); he shows the beauty of the Indian landscape with crisp lensing from cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, and even shows some zest in some Bollywood dances with an original score by Shigeru Umebayashi. The film, though, belongs to Pinto. Trishna does fail to bring any real drama to the story, as both Trishna and Jay’s relationship never meets the requirements of pulling any heartstrings or giving us a reason to root for them—especially during the entire second act. Hopefully, directors will notice Pinto’s great lead performance (and her obvious gorgeous features) and she’ll be offered more leading roles in the near future. (Trishna currently has no U.S. distribution.) Grade: B-
The biggest disappointment in the opening weekend, without a doubt, was Francis Ford Coppola’s bizarre and stagnated gothic mystery film Twixt, with Val Kilmer playing a third-rate mystery writer named Hall Baltimore. Baltimore arrives in a northern California town called Swan Valley where he is scheduled for a book signing, and nobody shows up other than the local sheriff (a delightful and hammy Bruce Dern), who begins to tell him about an unsolved murder in town and a story idea for a book, which keeps Baltimore interested in sticking around. That same evening, Baltimore has dreams of a young girl, V. (Elle Fanning), who leads him around town and tells him of the town’s many secrets. He is also visited by Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) in his dreams, and from this point on the film begins to stop making sense. Twixt was definitely inspired by the writing of Poe and Anne Rice, but it can’t really decide what it wants to be: it's never scary, suspenseful, or mysterious.
Before the screening began, we were handed 3D glasses—which was befuddling considering there was no mention of the film being in 3D in any press materials. Coppola explained before the screening that there were two scenes for which the glasses would need to be worn. (This gimmick seemed to be a bit of homage to Coppola’s mentor, schlock director/producer Roger Corman.) An hour into the film is when the first 3D sequence appears, and you know to put them on: 3D glasses flash across the screen. Not only were the 3D scenes completely unnecessary, the process of reaching for the glasses was distracting and took me out of the film. Kilmer and Dern are fine in their respectivee roles, even if both roles are unwritten and lack any real depth. One great laugh comes when Kilmer’s real life ex-wife (Joanna Whaley) shows up in a Skype conference with Kilmer, playing his wife in the film. Music by Osvaldo Golijov and Dan Deacon is a nice touch, but can’t save Twixt from being a third rate mystery that might eventually make its way to a third-rate cable channel. (Twixt currently has no U.S. distribution, although, there is talk Coppola may travel the country with the film in the near future.) Grade: D
Check back next week for my follow-up report from Toronto with more coverage from TIFF.
Photo: The Skin I Live In, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics and the Toronto International Film Festival