Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
• Toronto Report # 7
"There must be directors at Toronto other than Werner Herzog and Errol Morris," one reader wrote impatiently. "Try reviewing someone else's films for a change." Point taken. I intend to do that below, and say in my defense that I have already written about eight films not by my heroes. Actually, that's not so many, is it? I saw 26 of the films but feel no need to write about all of them; in a few cases, I don't want to say negative things about those still searching for buyers.
I know that doesn't reflect the gung-ho spirit of the ravenous packs of journalists at a big festival like Toronto, where bloggers literally sit on the floor outside a screening and start typing to "scoop" each other. I dunno. That's valid for trade-oriented sites and insiders like Anne Thompson and David Poland (neither of whom I've actually ever seen on the floor), but I'm not suited up for their sport. I find someone or something that really interests me, and tend to dwell.
So let me dwell a little on Mike Leigh's "Another Year." I saw it first at Cannes. I'm pretty confident it's one of those Leigh films that the Academy will love. The Academy is not the final arbiter of taste, although in recent years its taste has grown altogether too good to please the producers of gaseous Oscar bait. "Slumdog Millionaire?" "The Hurt Locker?" Say what?
I wrote from Cannes: "Mike Leigh has long been a great director, but now he is surely at the top of his form. 'Another Year' is beautifully sure and perceptive in its record of one year in the life of a couple happily married, and their relatives and friends, not so happy."
Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play the happy couple. They look like real people, Broadbent with his generous chins and Sheen with her cheery overbite. They don't match conventional ideals of physical beauty, but I love them just the way they are. What others might call flaws I consider enhancements that lift them above convention and make them gloriously themselves. We like them, sincerely and quickly, and it's clear that Leigh does, too. One of the pleasures of the film is simply being around them.
Into their life and home comes a frequent visitor named Mary, who is a forlorn loner and clearly an alcoholic. Tom and Gerri (smile) are kind people, and realize they may actually be the only people Mary has to speak with. The movie occupies itself with Tom and Gerri's happy life -- their garden, the son they're proud of, their enduring love -- and into this sunshine Mary sweeps down like a storm cloud. She is hopeless, really. She thinks she drinks because of her problems, and in fact her drinking causes them. This is obvious to her friends, and their patience can only stretch so far.
If you know Mike Leigh's films, you can sense this is a story right for his world. If you don't, I wonder how it sounds. It's not a dreary psychodrama, it doesn't preach, it amuses and allows a few tears. The keys are the performances by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, and Sheen, I suspect, is the one the Academy will be drawn to.
Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, is a joining of ballet, madness and melodrama, and there are times when ballet itself seems to join the same qualities. How can you be a great dancer and not be a little mad? You have been drilled since childhood, every audition is a measure of your worth, and you are surrounded by people who feed off you and have power over you. There must be times when "break a leg" sounds like well-wishing.
Natalie Portman stars in a big and demanding role as Nina, a young ballerina up for the challenging double role as the White Swan and the Black Swan in "Swan Lake." Her New York ballet company is a hotbed of intrigue. It's ruled by the sadistic Thomas (Vincent Cassel), who apparently believes a thorough sexual experience with him should be part of any dancer's training. He has cruelly discarded a former lover and prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) to make room for Nina, while insulting Nina's technique: She is too technically good, too cold, to be the Black Swan, although her icy perfection is good for the White Swan.
Now comes a sexy competitor from the West coast, Lily (Mila Kunis), who seems born to play the Black Swan. Lily's insouciance plays like a rebuff to Nina's years of work. She is deviously, devilishly subversive. And Nina herself is coming apart; a fact clear to her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey), who has perhaps driven her mad with smothering love.
The movie is unafraid of flamboyance. If there is a hint of Aronofsky's previous film, "The Wrestler," in Lily's ability to perform while hurting, it contains more than a hint of the bold imagination of the film before that, "The Fountain" (2006). Although it's better than "The Fountain," it has the same willingness to go over the top, the ability to follow into fantasy or hallucination. Any dance movie invites comparison with the greatest of all,"The Red Shoes," and in its Svengali ballet master and its tortured heroine, "Black Swan" has the same heedless ambition.
There are some roles Hilary Swank might not be right for, and others you can hardly imagine anyone else playing. In Tony Goldwyn's "Conviction," she plays a working-class woman from a rough childhood. She and her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) had an absent father and a mother who might as well have been absent, and lived in a series of dismal foster homes. But they stuck together and helped each other.
Kenny gets wild when he gets drunk. A local woman is murdered, he's arrested on suspicion, and behaves insultingly to a cop (Melissa Leo, from "Frozen River"). This comes back to haunt him. Two years later a ditzy witness (Juliette Lewis) thinks she might be able to place him at the crime scene, and the cops and prosecutor railroad him behind bars.
The heart of the movie involves Swank dedicating her life to proving her brother's innocence. This eventually costs her marriage, but she gets a high school diploma, a college degree, and starts law school, where she meets a fellow student named Abra (Minnie Driver) who unofficially signs on as her partner in the cause.
This is all based on a true story, including their lucky break when DNA testing is introduced and proves Kenny innocent. The story generates that kind of urgency we feel when a character is obviously right and is up against stupidity and meanness. It delivers.
A note on one of the strongest films here, John Curran's Stone. It opens Oct. 8, and a longer review should wait until then. But let me say that there is a union of three performances here that makes its story of psychological maneuvers something special.
Milla Jovovich, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton are equally compelling, with Jovovich in the most demanding role. She plays the wife of Norton, as a lowlife prisoner, and De Niro plays Norton's parole officer. De Niro is proper, reserved, by-the-books. Jovovich is a woman unlike he has ever met. She loves her husband without reserve, which is peculiar because he doesn't seem to deserve it, but then you never know.
"Stone" could have been some sort of a procedural, a straightforward crime movie, but it's too complex for that. It is actually interested in the minds of these characters, and how they react to a dangerous situation.
Bottom line of TIFF 2010: This is shaping up as a very strong Autumn movie season. Sales of films at the festival showed a strong rebound after slumping markets at several recent festivals, and that's an indication of "product" that distributors were willing to bet their money on in an uncertain economy. One of the best kinds of signs.
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