The most surprising thing about "The Martian" is how relaxed and funny it is.
It was two years ago on Saturday night that Jason Reitman's "Juno" had its world premiere here at Toronto. The standing ovation that night was the most spontaneous and joyous I can remember. Still vibrating, Reitman stood on the stage of the Ryerson Theater and vowed, "I'm gonna open all of my films right here in this theater at Toronto." True to his word, his new film "Up in the Air" played the Ryerson at 6 p.m., Saturday--same time, same place.
It stars George Clooney in one of his best performances, as a frequent flyer. His ambition is to pass the 10 million-mile mark in the American Airlines Aadvantage Program, something very few ever do. Asked on an airplane where he lives, he replies, "Here." He's a Termination Facilitator. He fires people for a living. When corporations need to downsize quickly, he flies in and breaks the news to the new former employees. In a lousy economy, his business is great.
During the first press screening here of "Creation," during a scene when Charles Darwin walks out of church during a sermon on the first book of Genesis, an audience member stood up and walked out. Was he offended by the film? There's no way to say. There were an unusually large number of walk-outs, but who knows if they were leaving for theological reasons, or to get in line for the screenings of "Bright Star" or "Fish Tank," or because of boredom? I hope it wasn't boredom. Although it's a movie with a good deal of talk, at least no one shouted out, "You lie!"
Charles Darwin as Paul Bettany
This will adamantly not be a review of "Creation," which will await its opening. It will be a discussion of some of the thoughts it inspires. I expected the film to be focused on Darwin's theory of the origin of species and the controversy it provoked in mid-19th century, but it is primarily about his domestic life, centering on Down House, Bromley, where he and his wife Emma lived from 1842 until until his death in 1882.
I have a quirky policy about writing of films from a film festival. In the early years, I tried to avoid an actual "review," especially negative, because I believed a film deserved a chance to open before I laid into it. This was grandiose--as if the world was awaiting my opinion. Then I began suggesting my thinking, without going into detail. Then, being human, I allowed that approach to enlarge into specific descriptions of films I really loved, or hated.
Alex Vo, editor of Rotten Tomatoes: No Meter when he needs it most.
That's now the strategy I use, with amendments. I can only review a film for the first time once, and if I've used all my energy in rehearsal, what have I saved for opening night? I'll reflect the general reception of certain films, however, if only in the spirit of providing news coverage. The first year I was here, I was one of four members of the American press. These days, with half the audience members filing daily blogs and twittering immediately after a film is over, it's simply all part of the festival process.
Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" is poised to detonate at the Toronto Film Festival. This willfully controversial director will inspire, as he often does, a storm of controversy, debate, critics clamoring to get into advance screenings that are already jammed, and a contentious press conference. Of the 400 or so films at TIFF this year, "Antichrist" was the first that sold out in advance. It was the same last May at Cannes, and that was before it has even been seen.
Von Trier was nothing if not canny in his title for the film. By naming it "Antichrist," he provides a lens through which to view its perplexing behavior. By naming his characters only He and She, he suggests the dark side of an alternative Garden of Eden, and then disturbing his ending becomes a mirror image of Christ welcoming the faithful into the kingdom of heaven. The title instructs us where to begin. If he had named the characters John and Mary, and titled the film "A Nightmare," what conclusions might we have arrived at?
Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" is poised to detonate at the Toronto Film Festival. This willfully controversial director will inspire, as he often does, a storm of controversy, debate, critics clamoring to get into advance screenings that are already jammed, and a contentious press conference. Of the 400 or so films at TIFF this year, "Antichrist" was the first that sold out in advance. It was the same last May at Cannes, and that was before it has even been seen.
I've just finished combing through the list of films in this year's Toronto Film Festival, and I have it narrowed down to 49. I look at the list and sigh. How can I see six films a day, write a blog, see people and sleep? Nor do I believe the list includes all the films I should see, and it's certainly missing films I will see. How it happens is, you're standing in line and hear buzz about something. Or a trusted friend provides a title you must see. Or you go to a movie you haven't heard much about, just on a hunch, and it turns out to be "Juno."
Nicolas Cage in "Bad Lieutenant"
I can't wait to dive in. Knowing something of my enthusiasms, faithful reader, let me tell you that TIFF 2009's opening night is a film about the life of Charles Darwin. The festival includes the film of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." And new films by the Coen brothers, Todd Solondz, Michael Moore, Atom Egoyan, Pedro Almodovar, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Alain Resnais and Guy Maddin--and not one but two new films by Werner Herzog. Plus separate new films by the three key talents involved in Juno: The actress Ellen Page, the director Jason Reitman, and the writer Diablo Cody.
Okay, I've already seen two of those. They were screened here in Chicago (Page as a teenage Roller Derby in "Whip It," Cody's script for "Jennifer's Body," starring Megan Fox as a high school man-eater, and that's not a metaphor). I already saw more than ten of this year's entries at Cannes, including Lars on Trier's controversial "Antichrist," Jane Campion's "Bright Star," Gasper Noe's "Enter the Void," Almodovar's "Broken Embraces," Bong Joon-Ho's "Mother," Lee Daniels' "Precious," Mia Hansen-Løve's "The Father of My Children," and Resnais's "Wild Grass." A lot of good films there. Not all of them, but a lot.
Revised, updated 6/25.In a stunning surprise, the number of Best Picture nominees was increased from five to ten Wednesday by the Motion Picture Academy.
May 22, 2009--One of the trade papers on Thursday was touting the French film "A Prophet" by Jacques Audiard, which received excellent reviews early in the festival, as a hot contender for the Palme d'Or. Rumors of this sort seldom mean anything here, but to me this was one of those scratch-my-head moments. "The Prophet" is a well-crafted, well-acted prison movie, but I feel like of seen variations on this story and its predictable trajectory too many times in too many other movies.
Malik, a young, vulnerable Arab-French man arrives at prison to serve a six-year sentence and is immediately targeted by the ruthless Corsican gang that controls virtually everything in the establishment, including who lives and who dies. Forced under threat of death to do the gang's dirty work, including a murder, he waits and learns to better his oppressors at their own game.
Tahar Rahim, star of "Un prophète"
As good and mainstream as this film is, there were few variations on the expected details: the body searches and humiliations of prisoners; the cruel intimidation of the weak by the strong; and Malikís inevitable rise to power as a force within the prison and as a drug lord on the outside. I guess I always hope that films in competition will be extraordinary in some way, and "A Prophet" just didn't seem to have that quality.
May 22, 2009--Austrian Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" is shot in black-and-white and set in an Austrian village in the two years leading up to the outbreak of World War I. A series of increasingly disturbing happenings over a period of months disrupts the otherwise uneventful flow of isolated rural life. These include a planned accident that nearly kills the village doctor, the torture of a child by unknown assailants, and the burning of a barn.
At first it could be assumed that this is a mystery and that Haneke's intention is to gradually reveal the perpetrators of the increasingly bizarre and cruel acts. Instead he seems to be moving into Dreyer territory, unfolding the story of repression and escalating evil in beautifully precise but rigid compositions that echo the sternness of the social mores and moral precepts of his characters.
Large families headed by unbending fathers are at the center of this film, and there are many children. The actions of certain children arouse suspicion, but then nearly everyone in the film arouses suspicion, as this is no ordinary mystery. In the end, the disturbing chronicle circles around to the beginning to find a meaning. The film's narrator began the story by saying that the events he was about to unfold may shed some light on later happenings. Haneke leaves it to his audience to decide what is meant by this, but it isn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that these are the youngsters who grew up to wear brown shirts and swastikas.
May 20, 2009-The premiere of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" will likely dominate the international press for days. The screening itself was a bit less than a crazy event than I had been expecting. After experiencing the wild, all-out adoration of Tarantino fans at a special Cannes screening of "Kill Bill I and II" some years ago, in which the audience consisted largely of French locals, I was prepared for anything.
The guards opened the Grand Theatre Lumiere a half-hour early, and even though I arrive at 7:55 am for the 8:30 am screening, it was already half full. Mild excitement was in the air, some cheers and applause were heard as the lights went down, and another smattering of applause when Tarantino's name appeared on the screen.
I was waiting for some kind of massive reaction at the end, but there really was nothing out of the ordinary. I've never been overwhelmed by Tarantino's films, although the crazed eclecticism of his work is a lot of fun. "Inglourious Basterds" worked for me as a satisfying whole better than most of his other films. He pulls together everything in his arsenal: action, extreme violence, misogyny, film history, pop music and pop culture, and a plot based on a wild premise that rewrites history.