Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The 2012 Toronto Film Festival: Day Five

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 5:48 PM

Attending a film festival as a critic, journalist, or member of the industry can be a bit like swimming in a fishbowl. Over the course of the fest you start seeing familiar faces at various screenings and events and, inevitably, engage in conversation. (Wayward coughing can also bring on suspicions that it's all a matter of time before the flu finds you). At the screening of Argo I sat next to a pair of producing partners who were fielding texts from the studios right up until the film started and then immediately after the final credits started to role. They joked that they could tell I was worried they'd be texting during the movie. “We love films way too much to be that kind of asshole,” one said to me.

Beyond the “what did you think?” small talk, colleagues fill you in on Hollywood gossip (I learned of a couple of on-set affairs and at least two actors whom I previously thought were straight are actually gay), offer up tidbits on various projects (who dropped out, who was involved, what the economic stakes are), and put a face (or personality) to reviewers you've read elsewhere. One formerly influential critic proved to be insufferably impatient when the lines didn't move quickly enough. In particular, I was struck by the conversations I had with writers for such websites as Twitch, SlantFilm, and Ain't It Cool. Far from the fanboy film geeks the mainstream press tends to think of them as, I found these writers to be thoughtful, well-educated and mercilessly critical. Our tastes didn't always line up but their knowledge and respect for the medium was every bit the equal of my own (or greater).

Sitting in the Press and Industry lounge I connected with filmmakers from Ireland, Germany, and China. One director was considered the top movie trailer producer in Germany, having cut together ads for many of Hollywood's biggest movies. He and his partner were shopping their concept for a horror film –the tale of a vain fashion model who becomes a skin vampire- to attending producers. They were looking for $5-6 million and a possible Canadian co-production. We exchanged emails. Hopefully they'll let me know how things went.

The festival also provides opportunities to better get to know my Metro Detroit colleagues. Usually our interactions are limited to ten minutes of small talk before and after local screenings. At TIFF I've spent whole days sitting beside them watching movies, eating meals, and wandering Toronto's neighborhoods. I suspect our discussions would be tediously boring, unbearably geeky, or inappropriately passionate to be around.

So, how were the movies? Funny you should ask...

The Iceman: It's all about polyester and blood in this true-crime thriller about Richard Kuklinski, the notorious New Jersey contract killer and devoted family man. Michael Shannon is chilling as the unsmiling psycho killer himself and Chris Evans, playing against type, is terrifically creepy as his freelance murdering partner. Despite the topnotch performances, however, this grisly psychodrama doesn't offer much depth, wit or insight. Shannon's Kuklinski is a tight-lipped guy, and never given to moments of self-reflection about his unquenchable rage. He kills people – a lot of people – and tries to play good daddy to his wife (Winona Ryder) and daughters but mostly registers as a blank. Even the Goodfella's style mob stuff doesn't bring much heat to the story because he's just a hired henchman, outside the politics and personal dynamics of organized crime. Nevertheless, James Franco haters (I am not one) will get the opportunity to see the actor beg for his life before Kuklinski fits him for a pine box.

The Impossible: The first 45 minutes of this movie delivers the most astounding natural disaster movie footage I have ever seen. It's 2004 and the southeast Asian tsunami hits Thailand – in particular, an upscale resort where Naomi Watts and Ewan McgRegor are vacationing with their family. What follows is a harrowing apocalypse of water that engulfs the stars as they struggle to grab their kids. Director Juan Antonio Bayona masterfully puts you into the center of the action as you hear and see (more than just watch) the full impact of the maelstrom. After that, the movie transitions from Hitchcockian suspense to Spielbergian sentiment as the family tries to find one another and, in saintly Naomi's case, survive their terrible injuries. Subtle it's not. And don't get me started on the ethics of worrying over a gaggle of beautiful blond Brits as indigenous communities are destroyed and 230,000 dark-skinned locals are killed. American audiences will love every emotionally bombastic, well-crafted contrivance the movie has to offer. I suspect southeast Asian audiences will be a little less impressed.

I Declare War: This is one of those instances where you read the description of a film in the program catalog and decide to take a chance. I'm glad I did. A group of twelve year old kids play war in the neighborhood woods. Though they only have toys weapons (and, in some cases, just sticks), we see things from their POV, where bullets, mortars, and machine guns rain havoc all around them. What develops over the course of a summer afternoon is a Lord Of The Flies-like scenario where jealousy and betrayal test their friendships and taint what should have otherwise been a fun bit of dramatic play. This Canadian indie, cast with unknown tween actors turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Director Jason Lapeyre doesn't play his story for satire (like, say, Bugsy Malone) but treats the emotions, conflicts and motivations of his kids as worthy of sincere dramatic consideration. Bullying, teen crushes and misguided loyalty are all part of the mix as war and adolescence are explored from a unique perspective.

In between these screenings I slipped into one of TIFF's shorts program which, unfortunately, was a tad underwhelming. Many of the films seemed like barely developed ideas or experiments in form and style. Many were incredibly earnest. My favorite involved a teenage girl on a reservation who decides to fake her pregnancy – but not for the usual reasons. Rather try to keep her boyfriend, who was prepared to give up on school and get a job (she dumps him), or to gain attention from her family (she shuns their gifts and care), her motives remain murky and undefined. I can't explain why the short stuck with me but it did, presenting a kind of ennui that is self-destructive never elicits despair. Nothing in the program lived up to it, though a cheeky 3D family autobiography scored points for its self-aware sense of humor.

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