Several recent Toronto films feature marvelous performances in films that range from wonderful to forgettable
Much of the attention at Toronto so far has focused on big-name auteur directors – Terrence Malick, the Wachowskis, P.T. Anderson, David O. Russell and others. But the actors have been making an impact, too – and not just Ben Affleck, who these days is becoming better known for the director side of his actor-director hyphenate.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix dominated "The Master," while Keira Knightley made a big mark in "Anna Karenina," John Hawkes and Helen Hunt in "The Sessions," Naomi Watts in "The Impossible," Jennifer Lawrence and a surprising Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook."
And TIFF screenings in the last couple of days have provided a few more names to add to the list: Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha," Michael Shannon in "The Iceman," Bill Murray in "Hyde Park on the Hudson," Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in "End of Watch" – and in a dual role as identical twins in a small Spanish-language film by a first-time Argentinian director, Viggo Mortensen in "Everybody Has a Plan."
Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," starring and co-written by Gerwig (left), takes the gifted indie actress' usual persona — a scattered but endearing young woman struggling to keep her life together but seriously ill-equipped to do so — to an uncomfortable comic extreme.
Gerwig's Frances is 27, kooky, disorganized and thoroughly inept at grown-up living, though her gangly klutziness hasn't stopped her from being an aspiring choreographer and an apprentice dancer with a small company. Her life, it seems, is a series of constant apologies to everyone in her vicinity for both real and imagined missteps and faux pas.
Beautifully shot in black-and-white and structured as episodically and seemingly aimlessly as the title character's life, the film grows almost unbearably uncomfortable, particularly in an excruciating dinner-party sequence and subsequent trip to Paris. The film waits as long as possible before giving us any sense that Frances is developing the wherewithal to get her life together, but her first steps on that path, when they finally arrive, feel satisfying, organic and earned, as well as desperately needed.
"Frances Ha" is a small movie, a delicate character study and a deft exercise in the comedy of discomfort. It'll require careful handling from whatever company picks it up – an announcement should be imminent — but should certainly get some attention for its leading lady, the second indie queen to have written a film in recent months. (Zoe Kazan was the first with "Ruby Sparks.")
If most of the attention on "Frances Ha" goes to Gerwig — which is not to discount the possibility that the film itself could well win raves — it will be in keeping with a couple of other Toronto films that function mostly as acting showcases.
"Hyde Park on Hudson," for instance, is all about Bill Murray's sly and largely understated performance as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The film is focused on FDR's affair with his distant cousin Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), which comes to a crisis point on a weekend when the president was visited at his Hyde Park retreat by King George VI (you know, the stuttering monarch from "The King's Speech").
Murray captures both the public bravado of a fragile man who needed to appear strong, and the arrogance of one who knew his numerous indiscretions would go unreported and unpunished. But the always-estimable Laura Linney doesn't have much to do as Suckley except look timid and mousy for 90 minutes, and any narrative interest is lost in voiceovers and in the second-act appearances of King George and Queen Elizabeth as suddenly significant characters who nonetheless play like distractions from the story at the heart of the film.
Think of it as this year's "The Iron Lady" — and while it's certainly a better film than that one, in which Meryl Streep won an Oscar for being terrific in a terrible movie, once again the central performance outclasses everything around it.
"The Iceman" is a better, tougher, funnier movie, but again it is notable mostly for its acting — in this case, a towering (literally and figuratively) performance by Michael Shannon as a real-life family man who also happens to be a hitman for the mob. Winona Ryder nails a smaller but affecting turn as the unsuspecting wife who's unsuspecting because she's been trying very hard for decades to look the other way.
The film leapfrogs through the years, from one bad haircut to another, but Shannon is never less than commanding as the husband and father who channels his inner reservoirs of rage, which were filled up during an abusive childhood, into a lucrative career as a coolly efficient killer.
While "The Iceman" is amusing and likeable, it is Shannon — volcanic and loving, sad and brutal – who dominates every frame.
You could say the same about Mortensen in the small, untidy and disquieting thriller "Everybody Has a Plan," the debut of Argentinian writer-director Ana Piterbarg (right). Making his third movie in Spanish, a language in which the actor is fluent, Mortensen plays both a rough backwoods denizen involved in shady dealings in the Tigre Delta in Argentina, and the twin brother who left that environment to become a doctor in the city.
Most of the characters have motives as murky as the swampy water that surrounds them, and Mortensen has found an indelible and original role in city brother Augustin, as desperate and as doomed as many a classic film noir figure.
In the post-screening Q&A, Mortensen – who was raised in Argentina until the age of 11, and who often translated the questions for Piterbarg – kept comparing the young director to David Cronenberg, lauding her eye for detail and her ability to craft a story that takes some unexpected and original turns.
"It's a tough sell," he said of the film, which is looking for distribution, "but it's a little movie that could."