Day Four of the Toronto Film Festival

Five films today and things start out strong. The first screening of the day is a 9AM showing of Sarah Polley's sophomore effort “Take This Waltz.” Polley, better known as an actress (Dawn Of The Dead, Go, The Sweet Hereafter), made an impressive debut with the tender and affecting “Away From Her,” which starred Julie Christie as a woman struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's. This time around Polley is confronting modern romance and how the thrill of falling in love can, like an addiction, undermine the chance for a true relationship. So far its my favorite film of the festival. Michelle Williams is terrific as Margot, a travel writer who becomes smitten with her across-the-street neighbor, an artist/rickshaw driver. The problem is that she's married to Lou (Seth Rogan playing it straight), a sweet and funny cookbook writer who's let the romance fade from their relationship. Polley wonderfully sets up all the cliches of romantic-comedies then mercilessly knocks them down, revealing the selfishness, pain, and missed opportunities that ensue. Not everything in the film works (Sarah Silverman is a bit miscast as an alcoholic but she gets a killer monologue at the end of the film) but it's a smart, affecting, and heartfelt dissection of the heart. And the scene on the amusement park ride “The Zipper” is worth the admission price alone. It's one of those movie moments that actually sent shivers down my back.

Whit Stillman's inventive, oddball, and surprisingly funny “Damsels In Distress” followed. You have to be in the right frame of mind but, to me, the first hour of this film is hilarious. It's been 13 years since Stillman's “Last Days Of Disco” and you have to wonder where he's been. He's still got an impish sense of humor and a knack for taking outre ideas and presenting them as everyday situations. Here it's anal sex. Really. But that's not what the film is about. Greta Gerwig is the leader of a strange group of girls at a small liberal arts college. They seek to civilize frat boys, run the campus “suicide center” (where distraught classmates are encouraged to tap dance), and hunt for new recruits. They find it with new freshman Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who's looking to fit in. Wacky romances, deadpan jokes, and bizarre twists on college stereotypes ensue. Unfortunately, Stillman struggles to keep things going in the latter portion of the film, only managing to pull us back in with a new dance craze. If this synopsis sounds strange there's a reason. I blame the film.

Friends With Kids” and “Twixt” filled out the afternoon. The first is pretty mediocre stuff. It has a strong cast (Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Megan Fox) but mostly centers on the friendship/romance that develops between Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt when they decide to have a kid even though they aren't in love with each other. Emotional complications ensue. The stand out feature is how half the cast of Bridesmaids shows up in the film. Wiig and Hamm once again play a sexed up couple. Hmmm.

Twixt” on the other hand is... well... just perplexing. And not in a good way. From the mind of Francis Ford Coppola springs this screwball gothic horror. The famed filmmaker claims he was inspired by a dream to make it and like someone who recounts an elaborate dream to you, it vacillates between insufferable, strange, eerie, and ultimately boring. Val Kilmer and Bruce Dern try to keep this tale of a washed up writer investigating a murder mystery engaging but the narrative cards are stacked against them. Elle Fanning has a creepy cameo. Ben Chaplin makes for a good Edgar Allen Poe and the story doesn't make a lick of sense. Oh, and two scenes are in 3D. One, set in a clock tower, is very effective. The other is negligible. But the way Coppola cues you to put on your glasses is a hoot.

The argument amongst my fellow critics today is: Which is the worst movie we've seen so far at TIFF: "Twixt" or "Trespass?" Everyone but me agrees it's "Trespass." I abstain from voting since I didn't see it, but the movie sounds laughably awful. The reporter from the Hollywood Reporter overhears our conversation and says, "I'm tweeting about your argument right now." Journalists commenting on journalists. Don't know how I feel about that. Amused I guess.

After a quick bite to eat I trotted over to a fairly packed theater for the nasty and creepy “388 Arletta Avenue” Cleverly shot on a series of surveillance cameras, director Randall Cole puts the screws to yuppie Nick Stahl and his wife Mia Kirshner as an unseen stalker, who has placed cameras throughout their house, in their car, and at their workplace, embarks on a campaign of psychological terror. There's definitely a “Saw” vibe going on here but instead of relying on gore or high-concept contraptions, Cole twists the dramatic knife by emotionally torturing his protagonist. The movie gets crueler and more unsettling as it goes along, building to a predictable ending that paradoxically disappoints and disturbs. The end credits, which plays “The Cat Came Back” at 33 1/3 rpm is one of the creepiest things I've heard in a long time.

From the screening I hoofed it north to a small bar called Cherry Cola's Rock N' Rolla Cabaret And Lounge for the Paul Williams After Party. While downing free cocktails and plates of calamari (the filmmaker and Williams forged a friendship over their love of squid) with film critic James Sanford, I were treated to a five song mini concert. Williams took the stage about 15 feet away and sang his newest piece “Still Alive,” which demonstrated that he's still got the songwriting chops. His voice was pretty ravaged but when he wrapped things up with “The Rainbow Connection” --which he considers his best song-- it was hard not to be touched. I shook his hand, briefly chatted with his wife and got over my disappointment that our interview wasn't to be.

A quick note: In remembrance of the attacks on 9/11, TIFF showed a short presentation about how the festival responded to that day back in 2001. It was tasteful, interesting, and surprisingly free of maudlin proclamations. Of course, after shutting down for a day, the fest adopted a "the show must go on" attitude, but they presented it as the only rational choice, not, thankfully, as a rousing cheer for the healing power of art.

Get TIFF tweets at @jephM

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