TIFF '12 Diary: Day 1

Sep 9, 2012 at 1:52 am
Ahh, Toronto, how I’ve missed you. I’m back again for my 3rd Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff). Cannes may have the prestige and the Riviera, Venice may have the history and the canals, and Sundance may have its Indie-cred, but as far as film festivals go, Toronto is best in breed. It’s the world’s largest film festival, widely regarded by Hollywood as the beginning of Oscar season, and used as a launching pad for the best of international cinema to find North American distribution and potential Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration. And with entries from 72 countries (the most ever) and nearly 400 total films being screened, this is the biggest Tiff yet. Played over eleven days in a dozen different venues around the city, Tiff ’12 features major Hollywood fall releases, Oscar hopeful prestige films, Sundance favorites, and award winners from Cannes and Venice. Tickets are always hard to come by, and choices nearly impossible to make amidst so many promising possibilities, but that’s part of the grand adventure. And after a traffic debacle that took me 3 hours to get my car to where I was leaving it for the week and involved me taking a cab, two subways, and two street cars (not an exaggeration), I finally made it to the opening gala: Jason Reitman’s live table read of American Beauty.   When Jason Reitman came out on stage at the Ryerson Theater Thursday night to present his live table-reading of American Beauty (and, ostensibly, to kick off Tiff 2012), he told the story of how his career began seven years ago in the same building. He was there in 2005 to present his first film, Thank You for Smoking, and he said it occurred to him backstage that night that he would either leave the building with a career, or emphatically without one, just another Hollywood son incapable of replicating the success of his parents. Luckily, Thank You for Smoking was a critical success, and Reitman found himself with a career. Since that day, his films Juno and Up in the Air have also premiered at the Ryerson Theater, and the venue has become his home away from home.   And now he was back, to present a unique event that Toronto (and really, anywhere outside of L.A.) has never seen: one of his famous live table-reads. Begun a few years ago to benefit various Los Angeles charities, Reitman created a tradition of gathering groups of fine actors and casting them in the roles of classic movies. Then they all sit on stage and read through the screenplay, acting out their parts with all the skill and verve they can provide, and Reitman reading the stage directions and scene descriptions. Reitman’s previously directed live-reads of The Apartment (with Natalie Portman and Steve Carrell tackling the Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemon roles), The Big Lebowski (with Seth Rogan as The Dude), and Reservoir Dogs, for which Reitman used an all African-American cast.   And now he’s brought American Beauty to Toronto. Beauty was selected for its significance to Tiff, as it had its world premiere here in 1999 and rode its Tiff accolades to nearly sweep the major Oscars, forever validating the perception that the mythical “Road to the Oscars” begins in Toronto.   For the cast, Reitman used several popular Toronto actors in the supporting roles, including Sarah Gadon as Angela (originally played by Mena Suvari). Adam Driver, fresh from his performance as the “weirdorable” Adam in HBO’s Girls handled drug-dealing cameraman Ricky Fitts (originally Wes Bentley), and Mae Whitman, of TV’s In Treatment and Parenthood, played Jane (originally Thora Birch). Reitman had originally tweeted that Woody Harrelson would be reading for the homophobic Col. Frank Fitts (originally Chris Cooper), but Harrelson wasn’t in attendance and no explanation was given for his absence. Instead Nick Kroll, of TV’s The League read the part. For the lead roles, Reitman turned to AMC’s paragons of domesticity, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, as Lester and Carolyn Burnham (roles made famous by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening).

The assembled cast, with Reitman on the right

It’s appropriate given the fakeness at the heart of American Beauty’s themes that Cranston (who portrays a normal suburban dad that’s actually a murdering meth dealer on Breaking Bad) and Hendricks (who portrays the perfect trophy wife that actually had a bastard child with her boss and whored herself for a company partnership on Mad Men) should play the two leads. As Reitman said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “When I think of those two roles, I think of Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks because they know how to balance domestic drama while making it scary and hilarious at the same time.” And it was a great treat for audiences, who could vicariously imagine a sort of comic-book style crossover between the two best shows on television.   The cast was uniformly excellent, but special praise has to go to Cranston, or “Bryan motha-fuckin’ Cranston,” as Reitman introduced him. Reitman specifically pointed out that there were no rehearsals, and the cast would likely be feeling out their characters for the first few scenes. Given that, what Cranston did was remarkable. Without the benefit of practice, without the benefit of cherry picking the best from multiple takes, Cranston absolutely went to town on the dialogue, showcasing a natural acting ability and comedic timing that captivated the audience. As Reitman said beforehand, Cranston is clearly the guy who would have played Lester Burnham were the movie made today.   It was also funny to see what the cast did physically. While they were seated the whole time and mostly just reading, there was still the odd expressive tic here and there, such as Adam Driver’s dead-eyed staring at Mae Whitman (who he was seated next to) each time Reitman’s stage direction told us Ricky was staring at Jane. And when Angela’s dialogue mentioned how Lester probably “has a big dick,” Cranston, not missing an opportunity, started nodding confidently to the audience. And Gadon’s reading of Angela confirmed what most of Toronto already knows—this girl can act, and she has real star power.   One of the rewards of these table-reads is the ability to also hear all of the stage direction and scene descriptions read aloud. Before the show, Reitman mentioned how during his live-read of The Apartment, one of the screenplay’s descriptions called a female character “a real second baseman kind of dame,” which is something you’d never see without reading the screenplay, and these kind of insights add great value to the story.   After the cast took their bows, it was time for my first film of the festival   On The Road (Click here for the trailer)   Adapted by Brazilian director Walter Salles (2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries) from the classic 1957 novel by Jack Keruac that defined the Beat generation, On The Road managed to be that rare film that didn’t really have any flaws, but still felt flawed in outcome. On the surface, every individual aspect of the film was right: the casting, the performances, the pacing, the imagery, etc. But unfortunately, it still felt like an incomplete movie. The problem (and I suspect, a big reason why there hasn’t been a previous film adaptation for one of the 20th century’s greatest novels) is that the source material didn’t hinge on plot as much as it did on specificity of style and language. Once you remove the characters and events of the novel from the words that told their tale, the story loses much of its power. The novel’s best quote (“The only ones for me are the mad ones ”) was actually read word for word by Sal Paradise in the film, and that feels like a hint that Salles struggled with how to retain the feeling of the book in adaptation.   But even still, there’s a lot here to like, and it starts with the cast. As the hedonistic Dean Moriarty, Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) simmered. With the same looks and presence of a young Brad Pitt, but armed with an unspeakable sadness lurking behind his baby blues, Hedlund dove head first into the role and let it totally overtake him. It reminded me of Val Kilmer’s performance as Jim Morrison in The Doors—he becomes Dean Moriarty to the extent that you can’t separate the character from the performance. This role could—and should—make him a star. And Kristen Stewart, in her first real adult role, proves she has what it takes to forge a career beyond the wretched Twilight franchise. Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, essentially the main character, is also quite good, but a bit overshadowed by the brazenness of Hedlund and Stewart in roles that offered far more opportunities to cut loose.

L to R: Tiff CEO Piers Handling, director Walter Salles, Garrett Hedlund, Kirsten Dunst, Kristen Stewart

The supporting cast is made up of several well-known actors (Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Terrence Howard, Elizabeth Moss, Steve Buscemi), and they do a good job where they can, but they mostly aren’t given enough to do. Buscemi only shows up to get sodomized, and Amy Adams’ three minutes of screen time is partially spent simulating a blowjob for Moss. It’s worth wondering why some of them even signed on.   Thematically, On The Road is about a decadence of emotion spilling out into behavior. The characters felt a compulsion to live faster, louder, harder, crazier; they needed more booze, more drugs, more sex, more driving, more dancing, more more. But while these sensations are palpable, there’s just not much in the way of story. The first hour feels like it mostly alternates between sex scene and driving, sex scene and driving, and without Kerouac’s descriptive words to emcee the proceedings, they lose their resonance and power. The film is beautiful and moving in parts, but there are also some non-sequiters in terms of when some of the characters leave and return to the narrative. But again, these are problems that existed in the text. As an adaptation, I think Salles did as good a job as he, or perhaps anyone, could have. The real flaw wasn’t anywhere in the result, but in the decision to make the film. Some books should probably just remain books.   Grade: B-   And now it’s time for a brief lesson in Q & A etiquette: If the moderator of the Q & A says they have time for two more questions   A) Don’t be the person that raises your hand and says “Kristen, I’m a huge fan, I just love you, you were so good in this, if you could, like, go anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?”   B) Don’t be the person that then raises your hand only to say “I just have a general comment, I loved the film. Wonderful job everyone.”   See what happened there? The final two opportunities for people to actually engage in constructive dialogue with the cast and filmmaker were stolen away by idiots. One of the wonderful things about seeing films at Tiff is the Q & A’s that follow the screenings. It’s a great opportunity to really learn things about the films and ask interesting questions about the works you’ve just seen. And a lot of people in the audience have real questions they want to ask. So don’t steal those opportunities to senselessly yammer fan gibberish. It’s disrespectful to the people that actually have something to say, and it’s disrespectful to the rest of us in the audience that might want to hear actual questions and don’t care if you’re Kristen Stewart’s self-proclaimed biggest fan.   I guess I should at least be happy that no one took the Q & A as an opportunity for something to the effect of “OMG K-Stew, you total slut, why did you cheat on R-Pat? He’s, like, so dreamy!” The girl sitting next to me was absolutely convinced this would happen, and she admitted she was excited to take a picture of Kristen Stewart’s face when it did. It really does take all kinds.   Tomorrow: The first full day of Tiff with several major films premiering.   Daniel Joyaux is a film and pop culture critic living in Ann Arbor. You can read more of his work at thirdmanmovies.blogspot.com