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Moviehole in Toronto!

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The Toronto International Film Festival seems to simply get bigger and more frenetic with each passing year. It has gotten to the stage that to trey and do the Festival justice, one needs a team of writers in the Canadian city, but two of us, myself and co-writer Melissa Algaze, trudged wearily from screening to screening to try and give readers a mere morsel of cinematic treats at this, the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.

What truly defines Toronto is that it represents film from Hollywood’s mainstream, to the far corners of the globe, and as we began our initial foray into screenings this year, one thing is certain: film is nothing if not diverse, culturally and aesthetically.

Broken Embraces

Returning to the popular Festival is Spanish iconoclast Pedro Almodovar with his intriguing ”Broken Embraces” or ”Los abrazos rotos”. The film tells of one Harry Caine, [Lluís Homar] a blind writer, who reaches this moment in time when he has to heal his wounds from 14 years back. He was then still known by his real name, Mateo Blanco, and directing his last movie. Fourteen years before, he was in a brutal car crash on the island of Lanzarote. In the accident, he not only lost his sight, he also lost Lena [Penelope Cruz], the love of his life. This man uses two names: Harry Caine, a playful pseudonym with which he signs his literary works, stories and scripts, and Mateo Blanco, his real name, with which he lives and signs the film he directs. After the accident, Mateo Blanco reduces himself to his pseudonym, Harry Caine. If he can’t direct films he can only survive with the idea that Mateo Blanco died on Lanzarote with his beloved Lena. In the present day, Harry Caine lives thanks to the scripts he writes and to the help he gets from his faithful former production manager, Judit Garcia [Blanca Portillo], and from Diego [Tamar Novas], her son, his secretary, typist and guide. Since he decided to live and tell stories, Harry is an active, attractive blind man who has developed all his other senses in order to enjoy life, on a basis of irony and self-induced amnesia. He has erased from his biography any trace of his first identity, Mateo Blanco. One night Diego has an accident and Harry takes care of him (his mother, Judit, is out of Madrid and they decide not to tell her anything so as not to alarm her). During the first nights of his convalescence, Diego asks him about the time when he answered to the name of Mateo Blanco, after a moment of astonishment Harry can’t refuse and he tells Diego what happened fourteen years before with the idea of entertaining him, just as a father tells his little child a story so that he’ll fall asleep. The story of Mateo, Lena, Judit and Ernesto Martel is a story of love and passion dominated by fatality, jealously, the abuse of power, treachery and a guilt complex. Almodovar’s films are always defined by their powerful exploration of the human condition, sexuality and the role of women in society. He and Penelope Cruz have forged quite the alliance, and here he has afforded the Oscar winner the chance to grow and open up on screen as never before. On that level, Broken Embraces achieves much in its relationship with its female protagonist, and there is no denying the director’s vision of Cruz as actress and sexual being are incomparable here. Thematically, the film beautifully explores voyeurism in its many complexities and seamlessly shifts between time periods with relative ease. But this latest Almodovar film lacks the depth and precision of his earlier work and at times suffers from its own restlessness. It is an engaging film and of course looks beautiful but it is not as narratively strong and his characters here are less defined than in much of his previous films. Of course, fans of the director will still find much to admire and art house box office should remain strong. As for the luminous Cruz, it is evident that her growth and development as a movie star are as obvious as ever here and for her alone, Embraces is worth a look. [P.F]

Jennifer’s Body

The Midnight Madness section at Toronto generally contains some of the Festival’s most interesting selections, but rarely does a Hollywood studio film appear in this section with as much optimism as ”Jennifer’s Body”, which was previewed at this year’s Comic Con. The first film directed by Karyn Kusama since 2005’s ”Aeon Flux”, which suffered from some extraordinary studio interference and savage reviews, the director of ”Girlfight” has bounced back with a film that takes the horror genre to a whole new wonderful level. In a performance that can only be described as spectacular, Megan Fox proves how much more of an actress she is, starring as popular cheerleader Jennifer Check, a high school senior with an insatiable desire for manipulation, flirtation and being the bad girl who loves to cause trouble and teased her male counterparts. Her best friend is bespectacled Needy Lesnicky [a marvellous turn by Mama Mia’s Amanda Seyfried], who is easily drawn to the wilful ways of Jennifer. When Jennifer runs off with a visiting band, she re-emerges somewhat possessed, and this possession turns her from regular, sex-obsessed cheerleader to a killer who specializes in offing her male classmates. Jennifer’s Body could easily have turned into a film that borders on adolescent stupidity, but with a script by Diablo Cody that bristles with wit and sharp characters, and director Kusama at the helm, the result is a fresh, wonderfully audacious, incredibly sexy and quite brilliantly funny film that succeeds on more levels than meets the eye. Cody completely subverts a common genre and gives it a distinctly female perspective that drives the narrative throughout while Kusama gives the film her own original point of view, resulting in a work that is both visually imaginative as well as smart and funny. One could never associate the genre with strong acting, and you’ll hear no shrieks of histrionic screaming in this movie. Both women are extraordinary in this film, and Seyfried is an actress whose talent leaps off the screen in one of the most exquisite performances by a young actress seen this year. Without giving anything away, she undergoes quite the metamorphism and pulls it off with a genuine and sincere credibility. She has one emotional moment in the film that is simply stunning. Megan Fox is no slouch either, clearly having fun devouring this role with all the sublime relish at her disposal. But the combination of a gifted writer and a director absent too long, make Jennifer’s Body sublime, fun, exhilarating entertainment that will make distributor Fox a fortune at the box office, which this terrific film so richly deserves. [P.F]

An Education

Earlier this year at Sundance, Sony Pictures Classics acquired Audience Award winning ”An Education” after an intense bidding war and was screened at Toronto as part of the Festival’s Special Presentation series.

The movie is set in 1961 and attractive, bright 16-year-old schoolgirl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is poised on the brink of womanhood, Stifled by the tedium of adolescent routine in suburban Twickenham, Jenny can’t wait for her adult life to begin. She’s an assiduous student, excelling in every subject except the Latin that her father is convinced will land her the place she dreams of at Oxford University. One rainy day, her suburban life is upended by the arrival of an unsuitable suitor, 30-ish David (Peter Sarsgaard). Urbane and witty and to her frank amazement, he manages to charm her conservative parents Jack (Alfred Molina) and Marjorie (Cara Seymour) Very quickly, David introduces
Jenny to a glittering new world of classical concerts and late-night suppers with his attractive friend and business partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s girlfriend, the beautiful but vacuous Helen (Rosamund Pike). David replaces Jenny’s traditional educationcwith his own version.

Using an amazing mixture of flattery and fibbery, David arranges to take Jenny on a weekend jaunts to Oxford and Paris. On her return to Twickenham, Jenny’s school friends are thrilled with her newfound sophistication but her headmistress (Emma Thompson) is scandalized and her English teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams) is deeply disappointed that her prize pupil seems determined to throw away her gifts and chances of higher education. Just as the family’s long-held dream of getting their brilliant daughter into Oxford seems within reach, Jenny is tempted by another kind of life.

”An Education” is an unforgettable, luscious and moving coming-of-age story that is more rich and layered than what one conceives of when they hear the quaint term “coming of age”. Carey Mulligan all but channels Hepburn’s Holly Golightly and brings the character of Jenny to life on screen in a way that many will be likely talking about throughout the enduring awards season. Nick Hornby’s adaption of the autobiographical memoir of the same name written by British journalist Lynn Barber, dazzles and perfectly captures the excitement of being on what Carey feels must be the precipice of an accelerated adulthood, something everyone who has been a teenager can certainly relate to. Director Lone Scherfig has a keen understanding of a society on the brink of change and a young woman in the fog of first love, which is at odds with everyone’s expectations of her. [M.A]

The Informant

There are definitely two sides to the iconoclastic filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh: the individualist who makes films that are distinctly personal, and there is the mainstream director who is happy helming the likes of the Oceans franchise. His latest film, ”The Informant”, distinctly falls into the latter category and one is happy to see him there, because as mainstream as it is, the film is still full of that Soderbergh magic that results in a film that both lots of fun yet intelligent and classy all the way. In one of his most deft and assured performances in a while, Matt Damon stars in the slightly true story of Mark Whitacre, an Ivy League Ph.D. who was a rising star at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s. The bipolar hero wound up blowing the whistle on the company’s price fixing tactics and became the highest-ranked executive to ever turn whistleblower in US history. Whitacre secretly gathered hundreds of hours of video and audio tapes over several years to present to the FBI which became one of the largest price fixing cases in history. The film is a dark comedy, beautifully directed by Soderbergh and featuring a sharp and witty script by Scott Z. Burns from the best-selling Kurt Eichenwald book. Brisk and deliciously funny, the film gives Damon a chance to show of a dry sense of humour, looking the part of the ill-at-ease executive, whose interactions with the FBI are priceless. Given recent economic history, The Informant arrives at an appropriate time in our history as corporate greed has become the norm, and such is the theme of a film that is fascinating as it is smart and entertaining. In many ways, it is an unusual film to come out of a major studio, because as funny as it is, it is a film that deals with some major issues. [P.F]

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