“Infamous”, “Last King of Scotland”, “Stormbreaker”
The Toronto Film Festival is up and running at a typically hectic pace. Being a journalist here is not all fun and games, from lobbying publicists to rushing frenetically to the next screening, it’s a week or so of adrenalin-charged exhaustion. After 10 years or so of covering Toronto, it is clearly that this remains one of the most significant festivals outside of Cannes. But as I have said repeatedly over the years, it’s the movies that are all important, from the Oscar wannabe blockbusters to the odd gem one loves to champion, or a combination of the two. The first day involves screenings and running around before the business of the Festival commences. And the films that I’ve seen thus far are as diverse and eclectic as one can see.
The first question is: How many films about Truman Capote and his obsession with the farmhouse murders of 1959 need one see? If it’s as great as Infamous, then, the answer is self-evident. Writer/director Doug McGrath has crafted a truly magnificent work, stylish, visually arresting and compelling. Every frame is a delicate work of art, and the final result is a film far superior to last year’s ‘Capote’, which suffered from a languid pace and a detached air of dissatisfaction. The plot of Infamous is the same: While researching his book In Cold Blood, writer Truman Capote (Toby Jones) develops a close relationship with convicted murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith [Daniel Craig]. Comparisons between the two will inevitably occur, but Infamous has what Capote lacked: an emotional resonance. While Hoffman’s Capote was a great impersonation, British actor Toby Jones inhabits the character with extraordinary depth and a profound sense of emotional realism. If there is any justice, the Academy will forget last year’s winner and bestow a Best Actor award to Mr Jones, who is the heart and soul of this work. But the plaudits don’t stop there. While we all know Daniel Craig will be an interesting 007, his Perry Smith is a powerhouse performance, to the extent that one is never aware of the actor delivering that performance. There is no James Bond anywhere to be found, which proves that for the first time since Sean Connery, Bond is played by an actor, not a movie star, and their scenes together are electrifying. Sandra Bullock is a revelation here, delivering a beautifully nuanced performance as Harper Lee, and there’s some lovely work from Jeff Daniels as cop Alvin Dewey, and Hope Davis, always a standout as Slim Keith. Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s very brief cameo as Peggy Lee is glorious. ‘Infamous’, stylishly directed by Douglas McGrath, with Bruno Delbonnel’s glorious cinematography enhancing mood and tone, is a powerful, witty and exquisite film. If you liked Capote, you must see Infamous, superior in every way, and one of the first great films of the year. Hopefully it won’t be ignored come Oscar time.
Not quiet as intellectual is ‘Alex Rider: Stormbreaker’, screening here as part of the new Sprockets section for kids. British newcomer Alex Pettyfer is a typical teenager who becomes an unwilling teen spy following the death of his uncle, also a spy. Imagine James Bond as an adolescent and, well, you get the idea. The film moves at a frenetic pace, but is hampered by moments of sheer haminess, and a ridiculous performance by Missy Pyle, without whom this first instalment of the Alex Rider series, would have been more engaging. A slick and neatly packaged teen action film, the movie boasts a nice turn by the film’s appealing star, while Bill Nighy, naturals steals the show. There are some great set pieces, such as a chase on horseback and a stunning sequence featuring Alex on a bicycle, but the film never makes up its mind if it’s lampooning the 007 genre or being its own film. It could have done with a sharper sense of humour, but ends up either taking itself too seriously or going for a more comically grotesque extreme. This is an unlikely Toronto entrant, but a male teen audience will appreciate the film’s action scenes and overall silliness. This is not a bad film, just a forgettable one.
While early Oscar predictions might seem premature, Forest Whitaker is a shoe in for a nomination as best actor for his riveting portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, in Kevin Macdonald’s ‘The Last King of Scotland’, which Fox Searchlight releases later this month. Scottish actor James McAvoy plays a recent medical graduate from university, who resists going the safe route at home working with his doctor father, to go on an adventure to Uganda. Initially there to help impoverished villagers, a chance encounter with the newly ensconced General Idi Amin, that leads him on a journey that changes his life. As Amin’s new personal physician, this fictional doctor allows us to see Amin’s paranoia and self-destruction. Weaving fact and fiction, documentary filmmaker makes his fictional debut with Last King of Scotland, and shows an uncanny visual eye. The opening shots of Uganda – shot on location in the African country – are richly textured, utilizing dense, vivid colour to show us how unspoiled the country was as Amin took over the reigns of power in a military coup in January of 1971. Then, as the dictator begins to destroy the very people he swore to protect, colour fades slowly and darker palettes take over. Stunning to the eye, ‘Last King of Scotland’ boasts a tour-de-force performance by Whitaker, whose screen presence here is compelling through every frame in which the Actor appears. But McAvoy holds his own, going from youthful idealist to tortured soul, with breathtaking emotional maturity. Kerry Washington is also wonderful as one of Amin’s wives. ‘Last King of Scotland’ is a compelling, masterful work, gripping and meticulously crafted by Macdonald. As for Whitaker, his stunning performance may well garner him the Oscar he deserves, and for his extraordinary performance alone, this King is well worth visiting.
– Paul Fischer