Festival Coverage

Moviehole at Toronto Pts 4 & 5!

Festival Coverage

Moviehole’s L.A Correspondent’s Paul Fischer and Melissa Algaze are in Toronto covering all the latest offerings!

Glorious 39

Playwright Steven Poliakoff is a master of smart witty material and his films encompass a broad spectrum, but nothing compares to ”Glorious 39” enjoying its world premiere at Toronto. This hypnotic thriller is set between present-day London and the idyllic British countryside in the time before the beginning of the Second World War. At a time of uncertainty and high tension, the story revolves around the formidable Keyes family, who are keen to uphold and preserve their very traditional way of life. The eldest sibling Anne is a budding young actress who is in love with Foreign Office official Lawrence, but her seemingly perfect life begins to dramatically unravel when she stumbles across secret recordings of the anti-appeasement movement. While trying to discover the origin of these recordings, dark secrets are revealed which lead to the death of a great friend. As war breaks out Anne discovers the truth and flees to London to try to confirm her suspicions, but she is caught and imprisoned and only then does she discover some ugly truths.

The adjective ‘Hitchcockian’ is often bandied about but Glorious 39 is a stunning, classic thriller which could easily have come from that venerable Master of Suspense. The joy of this masterful film, is the way in which writer/director Poliakoff, creates a mood of superficial tranquillity, and then slowly, carefully, we realize that nobody is whop they appear to be and his tone shifts in sinister degrees. Watching this film is like witnessing a complex game of chess, and it builds to a riveting denouement. It is just as fascinating to see what these actors do, playing symbols of British aristocracy, yet living a facade of sorts. Bill Nighy goes from strength to strength as an actor, and here, he plays a character audiences think they have seen before, but his subtle, finely tuned and flawlessly realised performance is something meticulous and quite breathtakingly brilliant. In direct contrast is the magnificent Romola Garai who plays the central character of Anne. Alluring, beautiful, fragile, intense and quite dazzling in her emotive range, Garai is a revelation and a major star in the making. Her final moments on screen are hypnotic. The always luminous Julie Christie is terrific as the mysterious Aunt Elizabeth and the wonderful Jeremy Northam is a sinister Balcombe.

Visually the film is as glorious as its title, with cinematographer Danny Cohen’s beautiful lighting and the music of Adrian Johnston is evocative. Poliakoff’s writing is consistently sharp, and he directs with assuredness and fluidity, keeping the tension bubbling at a crisp pace, only allowing it to come to the surface intermittently but with appropriate ferocity. Glorious 39 in part deals with family, trust and values, as well as about the dangers of class. It is as film about the veneer of society, and the masks we wear, and in all, is a sublime, elegantly and classically structured thriller by a fine, masterful filmmaker. One can truly hope that a clever distributor will pick the film up because clever and intoxicating thrillers such as this are a rarity, and Glorious 39 is a perfect cinematic gem. [PF] Canadian Director Ruba Nadda, brings her latest film, Cairo Time, to the festival this year as part of the Special Presentations program

The film follows Juliette, a successful American magazine editor with grown children who arrives in Cairo to meet her husband, Mark, a UN refugee camp worker only to be told he is unavoidably delayed in Gaza. Mark sends his devoted and long-time friend, Tareq, (Alexander Siddig), a retired Egyptian police officer; to pick her up and an undeniable mutual attraction occurs for both. Juliette leans on Tareq as she discovers the streets of Cairo are not safe for single women who don’t cover their heads. Tareq, who is single, is still suffering the pain of a prior relationship ending. Is it love or an intense friendship born from necessity and proximity? As they attempt to resist each other, the attraction grows. The brief love affair between Juliette and Tareq catches them both completely off guard, especially considering the intense loyalty they both feel for Mark.

After seeing this film, you understand what the makers intend to do with including the word “time” in the title. It not just refers to the time and distance to Cairo, which is so beautifully presented, but the opportunities missed and realized because of languid amounts of time or too little of it. Juliette’s husband is continually delayed for his arrival in Cairo, propelling her and Tareq to develop a stronger and more passionate relationship. Class and gender differences in Egypt are also deftly explored here, Juliette witnessing the vast differences in the experience of the uneducated girls who are poor and work hardest, while Tareq, an educated male who after retiring from the police force casually owns a coffee shop that he can close on a moment’s notice if he doesn’t feel like being there. The girls who weave rugs for pennies, do not own their own time – an idea Juliette bristles under and Tareq accepts with no shame. As their romance grows, we realize this is more than a typical ‘bored housewife has a vacation fling’ for Clarkson’s character. Clarkson is excellent this role and Siddig shines and more than holds his own against the more experienced Clarkson. The chemistry between them is undeniable. While the plot is thin and it occasionally feels like a promotional film for Egyptian tourism, it is an enjoyable film that avoids obvious clichés. [MA]

Mao’s Last Dancer

Based on the successful Australian best seller, iconic Australian director Bruce Beresford brings ”Mao’s Last Dancer” to the big screen and to Toronto before it opens in Australia on October 1.
From a desperately poor village in northeast China, at age eleven, Li Cunxin was chosen by Madame Mao’s cultural delegates to be taken from his rural home and brought to Beijing, where he would study ballet. In 1979, the young dancer arrived in Texas as part of a cultural exchange, only to fall in love with America-and with an American woman. Two years later, he defected to the United States, where he quickly became known as one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. This is his story, told in his own voice.
Mao’s Last Dancer begins as clunky drama (verging on melodrama) that relies too heavily on flashbacks to rural poverty and rigorous dance training in Communist China. When Li arrives in America, the film drags as it stereotypes fish-out-of-water situations for humor. Towards the final hour of the film, the story finds its rhythm by following a more chronological path, and the dramatic moments leading up to Li’s defection are more engrossing. Beresford’s handles the dance sequences beautifully, presenting them to the audience in full-frame, as if we were sitting in the theater seeing them live. Lead actor Chi Cao gives a solid acting performance and marvelous dance performances opening the eyes of even a non-dance fan up to the undeniable beauty and fluidity to the form. Overall, the film is inconsistent but should appeal to vastly ignored dance fans and older audiences in Australia where Li Cunxin lives and speaks publicly. [MA]

Balibo

Another Australian film at Toronto is perhaps one of the most powerful and emotional films of the year, ”Balibo”, from accomplished director Robert Connolly, who made the award-winning classic The Boys and whose latest work shows remarkable growth and maturity. The film begins in November 1975, four weeks after five Australian journalists are reported missing, and veteran foreign correspondent Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) is approached by twenty-five year old José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) who attempts to recruit him to run the East Timor News Agency. Roger East agrees but only if he is first given complete access to the nation to find out the fate of Channel Seven’s Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley) and Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter), and from Channel Nine, Brian Peters (Thomas Wright) and Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips). Four weeks earlier, the journalists had made their way to Balibo determined to film the imminent Indonesian invasion. On the morning of October 16 all five men are executed in cold blood by the invading Indonesian troops, after clearly identifying themselves as Australian journalists. Their bodies are burnt. East is also captured and killed.

The Australian film industry continues to make astonishing, accomplished and compelling films, and Balibo is certainly one such film as it explores a time in which governments were happy to stand aside while small countries were invaded and the Western media was quashed. This undeniably tragic story has cinematically unfolded with masterful power by a talented director and cast, and while many of us may know the outcome on a narrative or historical level, director Connolly magnificently is able to continually sustain and create tension from moments of pure tranquility. As these events return with a new re-examination of the Balibo 5 and East’s own powerful story, thematically, Balibo is relevant beyond the pales of history, as other conflicts over the years have also been aided and abetted by western governments, making Balibo so much more relevant internationally than it appears at first glance. At the heart of the film is one of the most remarkable performances of the year in Anthony LaPaglia, the emotional centre of this complex piece. As the middle-aged and initially weary journalist who becomes caught up in the politics of East Timor, LaPaglia delivers what could be the performance of his career, powerful, emotive and richly layered.. The actor has the extraordinary ability to communicate emotional depth with facial gestures, eyes and body language. He is ferocious and raw in this film and deserves every award imaginable.

Connolly shot the film on location in East Timor where these events occurred giving us the added ability to immerse ourselves in this tragic tale. Compelling, visceral and emotive, Balibo is a film that restores one’s faith in the power of cinema. This is an astonishing achievement worthy of international distribution.

A Serious Man

What would Toronto be like without a Coen Brothers movie to make things interesting, and along comes their most original and challenging film in quite some time: ”A Serious Man”. Possibly the filmmakers’ most personal film to date, it may be the toughest sell commercially, but when you win an Oscar, then you can afford to break the rules. The film begins in 19th century Poland and involves a tale about a husband, wife and and an old man who comes to dinner who is supposedly dead. Is he that ancient evil spirit known as Dibbuk? A symbol of bad luck exemplifies the main part of the film as iit jumps to 1967. The film follows misadventurous plights of an ordinary mans search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik,[ Michael Stuhlbarg\ a physics professor at a quiet midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous colleagues, Sy Ableman, [pa very dry Fred Melamed] who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur [Richard ind] is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job. While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis asd his world comes crashing around him.

On the one hand, this dark and complex fable is a very Jewish tale about God, or the lack thereof, temptation and the quest for spiritual growth. A Serious Man is a film peppered with irony and laced with a deliciously menacing sense of humor. Commercially, the film may have its problems. After all, a film that explores Jewish culture and vernacular with authoritative seriousness, featuring a plethora of relatively unknown actors with not a movie star among them, may not be a hit in Iowa. But if one strips away the Jewish elements of the film, what one has is a story of a man grappling with life letting him down. Thematically, Serious Man, as witty as it is, is deeply human, as the Coens explore the broad spectrum of human behavior. The film is beautifully shot by the wonderful Roger Deakins and attention to period detail and use of color to evoke the late 60s is gorgeous. All performances are sublime, especially lead actor Michael Stuhlbarg who captures the essence of pathetic vulnerability.

A Serious Man is an original, ferociously comic masterpiece that simmers with wit and tragedy. It is not necessarily mainstream, but that is what makes A Serious Man shine.[PF]

The Vintner’s Luck

Sex, lust, wine and angels are mere facets of Niki Caro’s lush and sensuous period drama, ”The Vintner’s Luck”. Set in early 19th century France at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, ntpic centres around Sobran Jodeau (Jérémie Renier). Sobran is a young peasant who hungers for two things in life: to win the hand of the beautiful Celeste (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and to create wine in his own vineyard. While marriage to the fiery Celeste soon follows, his wine-making ambition is considered above his station, and the patron he serves fails to put his innate skills to use. One night, however, he encounters the angel Xas (Gaspard Ulliel), who sees Sobran’s passions as evidence of his profound humanity. Xas proposes that Sobran plant some vines the angel carries, and further, that they meet each year at the same time and place.

Unsettled and yet self-interested, Sobran agrees without being able to answer his own questions about who or what Xas actually is. The vines, however, are very real, and they grow and thrive. Soon Sobran encounters the next influence in his life, the proud, educated and vulnerable Baroness Aurora de Valday (Vera Farmiga). Before long, he is as deeply entangled in Aurora’s emotional complexities as he is in her vineyard, leading to both spiritual and physical crises for everyone. Though a New Zealand film, this lush, erotic and passionate film is more European with its frank exploration of sexuality and eroticism, yet the film’s lyrical beauty and intelligence makes it something quite unexpected. A film about humanity and spirituality, Caro directs this film with an exquisite sense of detail. Gorgeous in all facets of visual detail, Vintner’s Luck is also a fascinating romantic melodrama, and at its core, comprises a cast that is spot on. Jérémie Renier is the perfect peasant who transforms into a self-educated winemaker. It’s a beautiful, complex and richly layered performance. The women in huis life are spectacularly good, from the wonderful all grown up Castle Hughes, who embodies the earthy sexuality of her character and the luminous Vera Farmiga, who is clearly a versatile and complex actress and is magnificent, beautiful and passionate as the Baroness.

The Vintner’s Luck is a spellbinding, sexy and hypnotic tale, thematically dense and s original in its tale of God, angels and sexuality. It’s quite as movie that deserves international distribution. [PF]

The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais makes his directorial debut with ”The Invention of Lying”, a comedy part of the Special Presentation program at this year’s festival.

Imagine living in a world where only the truth exists and no one is a skeptic. Imagine the nightmare of a first date (where a date tells you they aren’t sexually attracted to you as soon as they open the door), the workplace (where your secretary tells you she’s hated every moment she’s worked for you), or a visit with your mother (where she agrees with your self-assessment of being a loser) – this is a world where no feelings are spared, not to be malicious, but because the truth is all one knows.

This is Mark Bellison’s (Gervais) world. In this alternate reality, lies do not exist, movies aren’t ever fictional, Coke promotes their product as brown sugar water that will make you fat, Bellison’s boss tells him he’s too nervous to fire him thus putting off for days. The concept of a lie doesn’t even exist until down-on-his luck Bellison realizes the ability to simply not tell the truth and discovers that dishonesty has its rewards. As he discovers the ease in which to fib, things all begin to fall into this place for this self-described loser; his dream girl, Jennifer (Jennifer Garner), suddenly seems within reach, his career star is back on the rise, and before too long, he’s even famous for lies he tells his mother about

While this film is meant to be funny (and it is), it’s more of an astute commentary on where the truth fits into our world and lives. This black comedy works because we relate to where such honesty and dishonesty fit even though we crave honesty from the people that surround us; we often can’t handle it when we are given what we’ve asked for. We lie sometimes to protect and fool ourselves, but mostly to guard the feelings of others. In the alternative reality of The Invention of Lying, humans never have to deal with the messiness of untruths; people mean what they say all of the time and because they’ve never known any other way, they aren’t really hurt by nasty remarks because they are not insults, but just statements of fact. This entertaining and thought provoking movie ultimately urges the viewer to consider how important the truth is and where lies fit in to our lives. Gervais does a proficient job for a first time director and while there are some parts of the story (co-written by Gervais with Matthew Robinson), that cause the viewer to question the consistency of the premise; it is ultimately a funny and enjoyable film. [MA]

Youth in Revolt

”Youth in Revolt” is the 2009 American feature film adaptation of C.D. Payne’s first book in a series of best-selling satirical novels of the same name. It premieres this week at the festival and is due to be released in the U.S. next month.

Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) is a cynical, sex-obsessed, loveable 16 year-old loser with mature tastes in music, film and women. While on vacation to the ‘Restless Axels’ trailer park with his dysfunctional and desperately middle-aged mother (Jean Smart) and truck-driving unlawful boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis), he meets the girl of his dreams, the intelligent, sophisticated and sexually forward Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) and Nick falls deeply in love. But geography (theirs), ex-lovers (hers) and meddling parents (theirs) threaten the budding romance. In order to cope and bolster his courage, Nick creates a rebellious alter-ego, François, who Nick thinks will rescue him from himself, but in reality gets Nick into disaster after disaster in his quest for Sheeni’s attention.

Youth in Revolt is not your average teenage sex comedy/coming of age story. This unsentimental, cynical, sex farce is decidedly unique, yet somewhat familiar. It deals with relatable themes such as the loneliness of adolescence, teenage rebellion, sexual obsession and the experience of growing up in a chaotic world in an extremely distinctive manner. Cera, no stranger to the comedic value of embarrassment and relative newcomer Doubleday are credible in the outrageous predicaments the story finds them in. The supporting cast including Smart, Galifianakis, Justin Long, Fred Willard, and Steve Buscemi embody their eccentric characters, contributing to the uproarious experience of the film. Director Miguel Arteta has found a perfect off kilter take to the coming of age genre by mixing various animation techniques that show how Nick might imagine the things he’s talking about traditional live action where you see things from the narrators’ point-of-view. Youth in Revolt is hilarious, subversive and exceptionally original. [MA]

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