Toronto's films include Law as “Dom Hemingway,” Kline as Errol Flynn and docs on Burt's Bees, Berkeley and the art of cinema
As the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival draws to a close, it's time to play catch-up with some of the 288 features that screened at the mammoth 11-day festival.
I saw 25 films in Toronto and another 18 TIFF selections before I got there or after I left – and while a number of those 43 films have been covered at TheWrap over the course of the festival, another batch slipped through the cracks.
So here are quick takes on eight of the Toronto titles that I haven't written about before.
Though he's best known as an actor, Joel Edgerton has written a handful of films during his career, most of them shorts. But his script for “Felony” is a big step up for the Australian, a taut drama in which he plays a detective whose involvement in a car accident has reverberations that reach far beyond himself.
Directed by Matthew Saville, who has worked largely in Australian television, “Felony” is a tense and unsettling tale set in a world where the right people will look the other way for the sake of avoiding a mess. What could be a film about an investigation turns more into a dark meditation on culpability and fraternity, anchored by terrific performances from Edgerton, Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney.
You want to see the normally impeccable Jude Law as a foul-mouthed, vicious, drunk safecracker with an enormous ego, no filter and a one-handed best friend, don't you? Be warned: “Dom Hemingway” is an entertaining houseguest for a while, but the guy does overstay his welcome.
Law chews the scenery with relish as the title character, who spends 12 years in jail after refusing to rat out his boss (Demian Bechir, apparently playing a Russian) and wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter (“Game of Thrones” actress Emilia Clarke) once he's made a side trip to beat up the guy who married his ex-wife while he was away. And the film has its share of genuinely funny moments, with Law as the drunken lout to end all drunken louts.
The whole thing is pitched at a hysterical level start to finish, and after a while you may find yourself wishing that Dom (and director Richard Shepard, far more economical with “The Matador”) could dial things down every so often. He eventually does, and your ability to feel anything for Dom at that point will likely depend on how much the guy has annoyed you until then.
The story of Burt Shavitz, the bearded, backwoodsy photojournalist-turned-homespun entrepreneur whose beekeeping and honey-selling business morphed into the Burt's Bees empire, “Burt's Buzz” spends its first hour as a charming character study of an idiosyncratic man who lives a ramshackle life (“sort of like a high-class hobo”) when he's not serving as the public face of a huge brand.
But when director Jody Shapiro's film eventually shifts to the subject of how Shavitz was pushed out the company that bore his name at a personal loss of some $200 million, you wonder why it took so long to get there and why it's underplaying a vital portion of the story.
That said, “Burt's Buzz” is a fascinating look at a weird guy, and it recently closed a deal with FilmBuff for a theatrical and VOD release in 2014.
For decades, Frederick Wiseman has made slow, measured, immersive documentaries, exploring scenes and communities – a hospital for the criminally insane in “Titicut Follies,” the Idaho legislature in “State Legislature,” a Paris ballet in “La Danse,” a nude dance club in “Crazy Horse” – with a patient fly-on-the-wall approach shorn of voiceover, interviews or any direct attempts to supply context.
“At Berkeley,” as its title suggests, covers the University of California at Berkeley, one of the most prestigious universities on the West Coast. But this is Wiseman, so viewers shouldn't expect the Cliff's Notes version – instead, the director has assembled a four-hour movie that ventures into classrooms, boardrooms, executive suites and security meetings. It requires conscious adjustment on the part of the viewer, because Wiseman is interested in conversations, not soundbites; when he puts you in a room, you know you're going to be there for a while.
There are definitely times when you wish that some of these people would get to the point or Wiseman would take his camera elsewhere, but “At Berkeley” immerses you in the environment so fully that you might actually come away with a sense of what the place – the whole place – is like.
The story of two soldiers hiding out in the Singapore jungle from Japanese troops in World War II, Aaron Wilson's drama is visually striking, quiet, measured, almost completely without dialogue. You could almost call it a silent movie, except that the vivid sounds of the jungle — wind in the branches, the twittering and rustling of wildlife, the distant (or not so distant) sounds of warfare — are such a key part of the film.
Because the two soldiers – one Australian, one Asian – don't speak the same language, they can barely communicate; because they're in a setting where one false step could be a man's undoing, caution rules and everything seems to play out in slow motion.
It's hard to pull off 90 minutes of wandering through the jungle without things bogging down, and at times they do, but at its best “Canopy” is a tense, tightly wound art movie that can simultaneously scare you and mesmerize you.
“What Is Cinema?”
Chuck Workman's exploration of the nature of filmmaking is fascinating and confusing and contradictory; its embrace of everything from “Citizen Kane” to obscure avant-garde works creates a dialogue about cinema that is enlightening and obfuscating at the same time.
If you've watched the Oscars over the last 20 years, you've seen Workman's rapid-fire montages of classic moments from across the history of Hollywood. But “What Is Cinema?” applies his compilation skills to a far broader and artier canvas of more than 200 different movies from 130+ different directors, where mainstream filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock are outnumbered by experimental artists like Jonas Mekas and Bill Viola, and where the closest thing to voices of the mainstream comes from David Lynch and Robert Altman.
Workman is smart enough to not even pretend that he's discovered any real answers to the question he poses with his title. Instead, he offers intriguing, random musings on the nature of the art form. Says video artist Bill Viola near the end of the movie, “Cinema is an image that moves too fast to be seen but fast enough to be believed.”
“How I Live Now”
Before every film at TIFF this year, the festival played a trailer in which a bunch of people use the line “We'll get through this!” in different situations – a couple going through emotional problems, a cowboy riding his horse through the parched desert, a group fleeing from a tornado …
You could say that “How I Live Now” is a “we'll get through this!” movie. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (“The Lovely Bones,” “Hannah”) plays Daisy, an American girl sent to live with her cousins in the English countryside, at a time when tensions are high, the military is assuming control and some kind of apocalypse may be lurking around the corner. Sure enough, the conflagration arrives, though not before the sullen Daisy sets her eyes on a hunky neighbor who will help her shed her sullenness and find the pluck and resolve to Get Through This.
Ronan is good at pluck and resolve, and the film creates a suitably horrifying future – but making Armageddon the backdrop for a teen romance is awfully jarring and not terribly satisfying.
“The Last of Robin Hood”
The first credit on “The Last of Robin Hood” is for Lifetime Films – and truth be told, the phrase “it's a TV movie” is relatively accurate when it comes to Richard Glatzer's and Wash Westmoreland's look at the relationship between 50-year-old swashbuckler Errol Flynn and 15-year-old starlet Beverly Aadland, to whom Flynn was engaged at the time of his death.
Kevin Kline is perfectly cast as Flynn, and Dakota Fanning and Susan Sarandon are persuasive as the innocent (or is she?) Aadland and her scheming stage mother. But a trio of strong performances aren't enough to give “The Last of Robin Hood” the style and panache a film about Flynn should have, or the tough-mindedness that ought to be present in a movie about an aging, powerful man celebrating a relationship that is legally statutory rape. The presence of names like Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon in the credits might lead you to expect a sharper point of view, but instead this is too straightforward and restrained to do justice to its story.