TIFF ’10: Day 0

As another edition of the Toronto International Film Festival opens, the buzz around town is as much about what’s not here as what is. David Fincher’s much-talked-about Facebook drama The Social Network is premiering at the New York Film Festival, so it won’t screen here. Venice nabbed Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For reasons unknown, Abbas Kiarostami’s acclaimed-at-Cannes Certified Copy isn’t in any Toronto program. The Coen Brothers—who’ve showed their last three films at TIFF—aren’t done with True Grit yet. And no major fest this fall was able to pluck the sweetest plum, Terrence Malick’s long-gestating Tree Of Life

Which isn’t to say that Toronto is barren. Your intrepid A.V. Club correspondents are looking forward to Darren Aronofsky’s ballet melodrama Black Swan, and Werner Herzog’s 3D documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. We’ll be catching Ben Affleck’s latest crime saga The Town later today, and in the days to come we’ll see Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishigiro’s Never Let Me Go, and Danny Boyle’s mountain-climbing adventure 127 Hours, and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip.

And who knows? It could be that some of the unknown quantities here become breakout hits, and TIFF ‘10 will be remembered as the year of The Solitude Of Prime Numbers, or A Horrible Way To Die, or That Girl In Yellow Boots, or Score: A Hockey Musical.

The coverage here won’t vary much from previous years. We’ll be each be seeing anywhere from four to six movies a day (with as little overlap as possible, though there are some movies we both want to see) and writing them up in our handy capsule form at the end of the day, to post the first thing each morning. We’ll also be adding the occasional note at the end of each column about our overall impressions of the fest. None of this coverage should be taken as the final word on any of these films. Watching so many movies in such a short span of time can skew a critic’s impressions, both positively and negatively, and we reserve the right to temper our opinions on reflection. Consider these write-ups more as reports from the field. (And for even shorter, more immediate reports from the field, follow us on Twitter: @NoelMu and @scott_tobias.)

We’ve already seen a few of the movies playing at this year’s TIFF, either at Sundance or at advance screenings. Here’s our take on those:

I’m Still Here
Director/Country/Time: Casey Affleck/USA/106 min.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Sean Combs, Others In On The Joke
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Award-winning actor has a meltdown. Or is it a “meltdown”?
Scott’s Take: So is it a hoax or isn’t it? That the question that’s been floating around Affleck’s documentary about Joaquin Phoenix, who abruptly decided to retire from acting, let himself go, pursue a rapping career, and generally act like a weirdo. But the more distance I get from the film, the more I think the hoax question isn’t the right one—or at least it isn’t an either/or proposition. My feeling is that I’m Still Here documents a piece of performance art—so in a broad sense, yes, it’s 100% hoax—but within that performance, there are kernels of truth. And the truth is that Phoenix really is fed up with his profession and all the baggage and expectations that go along with it, and he really did want to express himself in a radical and personal way. But that expression isn’t some legitimate pursuit to reinvent himself as a rapper, but to immerse himself in the “Joaquin Phoenix” character—a mumbling, indulgent, assistant-abusing parody of a Hollywood narcissist. I’m Still Here is like 8 ½ crossed with Borat, a series of crazy stunts that captures the anxious carnival of life in show business. By description, that sounds like something I’d want to see, but Phoenix’s extraordinary commitment to the role—and courage, too, given the wreckage that it’s done to his image—isn’t matched by the actual content of the film, which is full of feckless improvisation and absurdly overlong at 106 minutes. Really, the world has seen the perfect crystallization of Phoenix’s act in his notorious appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, where he walked on with a scraggy beard, chewed gum, and looked stoned to the point of near-paralysis. I’m Still Here has its revealing and entertaining moments, but there’s a lot of wheel-spinning to get there; and in the year of Exit Through The Gift Shop, a hoax-or-not piffle like this one isn’t all that edifying.
Grade: C+

Buried
Director/Country/Time: Rodrigo Cortés/Spain & USA/94 min.
Cast: Ryan Reynolds
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: One man, one coffin, 90 minutes
Noel’s Take: How’s this for a gimmick? Buried opens with a contract truck driver (played by Ryan Reynolds) lying in a sand-covered coffin in an Iraq desert. In the box with him: a lighter, a cell phone and a few other goodies waiting to be discovered. For the next 90 minutes, we watch Reynolds make and field calls, in hopes of getting found—or of appeasing the natives who kidnapped and buried him in the first place. Outside of a couple of pictures and videos that appear on the phone, Reynolds’ face is the only one we see, and the coffin is pretty much the only set. Director Rodrigo Cortés makes good use of the limited space, although there are times when it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. As for Chris Sparling’s script, it’s cleverly constructed, filling in the details of Reynolds’ situation (and his life back home) in the midst of the action. There should be a little more to the backstory than there is—and more to the movie than a familiar critique of the management of the Iraq War—but Reynolds is terrific, and Cortés and Sparling overlay a preposterous premise with familiar modern complaints. Buriedis as much about dropped calls, getting sent to voicemail, and being openly lied to by our institutions as it about being buried alive by terrorists.
Noel’s Grade: B

How To Start Your Own Country
Director/Country/Time: Jody Shapiro/Canada/72 min.
Documentary 
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: Men with countries
Noel’s Take: Jody Shapiro’s documentary How To Start Your Own Country falls into the category of “look at these happy eccentrics,” which is problematic only inasmuch as any one of the people Shapiro talks to could probably support a documentary all his own. Shapiro looks into the odd phenomena of micro-nations: small islands or inland compounds owned and operated by people who think of themselves as sovereigns, able to set up their own laws and economies. Steering clear of the scary cultists and fundamentalist militias, Shapiro focuses mainly on oddballs who’ve staked their claim to a small stretch of land, or the wealthy idealists looking to build utopias in international waters. How To Start Your Own Country asks how these endeavors differ from what the Pilgrims once did in declaring their own micro-nation in The New World—or how they’re different from tiny countries like Lichtenstein, which isn’t a recognized nation by all, or East Germany, which no longer exists—and it asks whether there’s any real harm in people of means taking themselves out of the game, as it were. Shapiro might’ve explored those questions more effectively if he’d picked one micro-nation and had shown how they live by their own principals and how they interact with the states around them. Instead, he just lets these makeshift leaders talk, and emphasizes their quirky side. Still, this is a fascinating collection of folks, from the people who live in a North Sea platform called “Sealand” (which is laid out like a little superhero HQ) to Kevin Baugh of the six-citizen Republic Of Molossia, which has a public square with a flag that flies every day… “unless it’s snowing, or I don’t feel like getting up.”
Grade: B

Stone
Director/Country/Time: John Curran/USA/105 min.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Judge not lest ye be judged
Scott’s Take: Good news first: For the first time since maybe City By The Sea—though I missed the ill-received likes of Everybody’s Fine, Righteous Kill, and Hide And Seek—De Niro gives a real performance, doing subtle work as a corrections office who’s made a living deciding the fates of parolees, but isn’t exactly above reproach. Norton is also fine as a wily prisoner who employs his sexy wife (Jovovich) into coaxing a favorable report out of De Niro. Director Curran, who directed Norton earlier in the mediocre historical drama/travelogue The Painted Veil, returns to the heavy, portentous style of his 2004 marital drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore, and here as in the earlier film, it lends intelligence and gravity to the affair while also anchoring it in a grim self-importance. Curran means to explore questions of morality, weighing the hypocrisy of De Niro’s judgment against the terrible crime for which Norton has spent eight years atoning; granted, De Niro hasn’t broken any laws, but the sins in his life—particularly as they pertain to his terminally defeated wife (Frances Conway)—are immense in their own way. Curran gets some terrific scenes of the two men going toe-to-toe—De Niro’s anger, when it surfaces, is startlingly volcanic—but Stone is freighted by a tone of high seriousness, typified by snippets from an AM religious radio call-in that underline issues we already know. Stone functions best as a film noir, with Jovovich improbably stealing scenes from her more celebrated male co-stars as a femme fatale whose motives rank as the film’s one true mystery. A phone conversation where she hooks De Niro by dialing down her vocal register is particularly electric.
Grade: B-

Lastly, some of our other correspondents have caught a few TIFF films at earlier festivals. From Cannes, here’s Mike D’Angelo on Another YearBiutifulHeartbeatsThe HousemaidI Wish I KnewKaboomMy JoyOf Gods And MenOutside The LawPoetryRoute IrishScreaming ManTamara DreweUncle Boonmee and You Will Meet A Tall Dark StrangerAnd from Sundance, here’s Nathan Rabin on Blue Valentine and Waiting For Superman.

Back at you tomorrow morning with The Town, an Andrew Lau martial arts epic, Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the financial crisis, and that hockey musical.

Filed Under: Film

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