TIFF '12: Day Zero 

For the North American press, the Toronto International Film Festival is considered the opening salvo to fall awards season—and goodness knows, it provides plenty of grist for our annual Oscar-O-Meter fall movie preview—but Oscar talk doesn’t do justice to this annual smorgasbord of world cinema, which draws the best from earlier festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice) while premiering new films that range from forbiddingly austere international masters to the low-down nastiness of Midnight Madness splatterfests. It may be hard to assess the sheer scope of a festival with over 300 features on offer, but TIFF 2012 looks like a particularly exciting year, opening with Rian Johnson’s Looper and continuing with new films by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), Brian De Palma (Passion), Terrence Malick (To The Wonder), Joss Whedon (Much Ado About Nothing), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Olivier Assayas (Something In The Air), Sally Potter (Ginger And Rosa), Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), and many others.

Over the next seven days, we’ll cover these and dozens of other films in the TIFF lineup, filing capsule reviews of everything we see. (Keep hitting “refresh” around 3 a.m. ET every night if you want to catch them as they post.) We’ll also be posting more immediate responses to the things we see on our Twitter feeds: @NoelMu and @scott_tobias.

Though the festival doesn’t officially kick off until late Thursday, we’ve seen a number of films in advance, either in press screenings or in coverage of previous festivals. Here’s our respective takes:

Argo
Director/Country/Time: Ben Affleck/USA/120 min.
Cast: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Program: Gala
Headline: Hollywood Heist
Scott’s Take: Ben Affleck follows up The Town with more of the same: A heist movie essentially, albeit in the guise of a political thriller. Though the film begins with a snappy history lesson about the circumstances that led to the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, this thumbnail history just provides the context for an audacious, stranger-than-fiction CIA mission to extract six American hostages from their tenuous hidey-hole in the Canadian ambassador's home. In other words, it's less Costa-Gavras than Ocean's Eleven. But on those terms, it's mostly a rousing success, especially in the early going, when Affleck, doing impressively low-key work as the CIA officer in charge of the operation, heads off to Hollywood to develop a fake science-fiction project for a fake location shoot in Iran, with the hostages serving as Canadian crew members. The brisk comedy of the Hollywood section, helped along by John Goodman and Alan Arkin as the buddy-team responsible for making the ruse seem legit, evaporates once the action shifts to Iran and Affleck starts to ratchet up the suspense. Though the film is a little too deliberate in its tension-building—and not always convincing in its dramatically convenient confluence of events—Argo plugs into the uneasy tenor of the hostage crisis and potential embarrassment of this unlikely mission going awry. It's the kind of intelligent, nuts-and-bolts thriller that Hollywood should make more regularly but doesn't, and Affleck pulls it off with admirable scrupulousness. (Even if he feels too inclined to underline that scrupulousness by comparing documentary footage and photos to his own recreations.)
Grade: B


The Master
Director/Country/Time: Paul Thomas Anderson/USA/138 min.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Battlefield Earth
Scott’s Take: I’m reluctant to say too much about P.T. Anderson’s mesmerizing drama in part because I’ll be writing about it at length for next week’s limited release and in part because I need to see it a second time here at the festival in order to sort out its many ambiguities and elisions. (Here’s a film that stubbornly resists the quick-hit judgments of covering film festivals in the age of Twitter.) But I can confidently report that it’s another mammoth achievement for Anderson, who shot the film in 65mm—not for the sake of spectacle (it doesn’t have anything like the grand vistas of Marfa, Texas in There Will Be Blood), but for the intensely intimate relationship that develops between a knockabout WWII veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) and the charismatic religious visionary (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who offers him a way forward. (Though the few exteriors really pop when Anderson cuts to them, the real landscapes here are the contours of Phoenix’s face, which subtly crack with anguish when the master’s teachings strike a chord.) Despite some obligatory reports to the contrary, Anderson’s story mirrors L. Ron Hubbard and the development of Scientology, and he has a subtle feeling for how cult leaders exploit the weaknesses of their acolytes and for the circumstances that might allow a religion like Scientology to flourish. At its heart, however, The Master is one in a tradition of Anderson movies about fathers and sons (e.g. Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in Hard Eight, Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, and Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood), built on the tormented push-and-pull between opposites who attract and repel each other, with explosive results. More soon…
Grade: A- (tentative)

Painless
Director/Country/Time: Juan Carlos Medina, Spain, 100 min.
Cast: Tomas Lemarquis, Àlex Brendenmühl, Derek De Lint
Program: Vanguard
Headline: Uncomfortably numb
Noel’s Take: Writer-director Juan Carlos Medina’s debut feature Painless is a curious and thoughtful hybrid of historical drama and supernatural horror, which poses an interesting question: If a person is incapable of feeling pain, is he incapable of empathy? The film follows two stories in parallel: in one, neurosurgeon Àlex Brendenmühl looks to uncover the secret in his parents’ past that’s preventing them from helping him in his fight against cancer; in the other, a group of kids are institutionalized during the Spanish Civil War because they’ve been struck with some condition that renders them numb. The two stories are connected, of course: The more Brendenmühl investigates, the closer he gets to the truth about “Cell 17.” But the central mystery isn’t as grabby as it should be. The present-day framing device does provide a reason to flash back to the past, and connects the sins of different eras; but the structure of Painless also makes the movie feel heavier and more portentous than it needs to be. Medina and his co-writer Luiso Berdejo (author of the [Rec] series) could’ve gotten most of what they need from the flashbacks alone, which mostly follow the tormented life story of one pale, creepy-looking child, who carves up his own skins for laughs and hacks away at any doctor or nurse who tries to stop him. That character alone is fraught with meaning, as he’s exploited by each new generation of government thugs, each seeing the value in a killer who doesn’t understand how death might feel. That’s where Painless thrives: not in Brendenmühl’s inquiries, but in this one living embodiment of cruel bureaucracy.
Grade: B-

Room 237: Being An Inquiry Into The Shining In 9 Parts
Director/Country/Time: Rodney Ascher, USA, 104 min.
Documentary
Program: Vanguard
Headline: A masterpiece of modern horror (documentaries)!
Noel’s Take: When Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was released in 1980, it baffled many film buffs, who couldn’t figure out why the man who’d made some of the most challenging, brainy, and beautiful movies of the previous 20 years would spend his precious time and talent on a hammy, heavy B-horror flick. Some figured either Kubrick had half-heartedly bungled a job that was beneath him, or he was working at a higher level than mere mortals could understand. Rodney Ascher’s haunting, absorbing essay-film Room 237 (sub-titled Being An Inquiry Into The Shining In 9 Parts) lets a handful of those fans spin some of their theories about what they think Kubrick intended. Actually, “what they think” is too reserved a way to put it. These people are certain, and at times highly persuasive. The problem is that they can’t all be right, can they? The Shining can’t be a coded confession by Kubrick that he helped fake the moon landing and a metaphor for the Holocaust and a symbolic representation of the American government’s slaughter of the Indians and a subliminal-message-filled exploration of deviant human sexuality and a complicated structuralist film that’s essentially 2001 in reverse. Or can it? Room 237 joins the ranks of classic documentaries like Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and Los Angeles Plays Itself that encourage cineastes to take a closer look at the secret messages that movies send, and to ask whether they’re intended or not—or whether it matters. What makes Room 237 work so well is that Ascher shows the same Shining clips over and over, with different interpretations, letting only the voices of the theorists and the images from the film (plus a few other relevant movies) tell the story. The effect is intense: a deep dive into the rabbit hole of semiotics, which leaves viewers more alert to what’s really on the screen.
Grade: A-

The Sessions
Director/Country/Time: Ben Lewin/USA/95 min.
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Let’s Get It On
Scott’s Take: The Sessions is the type of earnest Sundance programmer that gets praised at cinema's peril—which is to say, it's sensitively wrought, offers complex, generously accommodating roles for its actors, and is about as visually compelling as a dog's behind. In 1990, the late poet and journalist Mark O’Brien wrote an article called “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate,” in which he detailed his time with a sex therapist who helped him overcome the severe limitations of polio and experience intercourse. The great John Hawkes plays O’Brien as a deft wit and resilient soul who approaches the sessions with a combination of adventurousness and extreme vulnerability. (In addition to fragile physical mechanics—he can only breathe for a few hours before retreating to an iron lung—he simply isn’t used to being touched.) Helen Hunt does fine work also as the therapist—look for descriptives like “brave” and “courageous,” which is critic-ese for “gets naked a lot”—and the two have a relationship that evolves plausibly as the business of intimacy grows more personal. Writer-director Ben Lewin brings on William H. Macy as a local priest who hears O’Brien’s explicit confession, but it’s a useless framing device, ostensibly affirming O’Brien’s religious conviction but really there to earn titters from the audience over his naughty escapades. Hawkes and Hunt provide The Sessions with a strong emotional core, but Lewin’s utter indifference to style undermines the film at every turn, making it seem soggy, plodding, and ugly where it should be suffused with feeling. The actors, and O’Brien’s story, deserve better.
Grade: C+

West Of Memphis
Director/Country/Time: Amy Berg, USA, 150 min.
Documentary
Program: Mavericks
Headline: Paradise regained?
Noel’s Take: It’s impossible to write about the Peter Jackson-produced West Memphis 3 documentary West Of Memphis without comparing it to the Berlinger/Sinofsky Paradise Lost films, so I’m not even going to try. In a nutshell, I’d say that director Amy Berg tells the story of three murdered kids (and the teens accused of ritually mutilating them) more cleanly than the Paradise Losts, but without the sense of character or place that made the first Berlinger/Sinofsky film in particular such a landmark documentary. Berg has the advantage of time and resources. Where Berlinger and Sinofsky had to make their way through the wilds of Arkansas, forging their own relationships and figuring out on the fly who was bending the truth, Berg has the story (and the testifiers to same) already in place, plus she has Jackson’s money and personal interest in the case to get her access to DNA experts, forensic pathologists and FBI profilers, all of whom establish very convincingly that the three men convicted for this crime were the victims a justice system more interested in expediency than truth. Like Paradise Lost 3, West Of Memphis goes hard after Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered boys, who was never grilled properly by the authorities about his past history of abuse, or his whereabouts on the day of the crime. Berg’s film doesn’t go that deeply into the sociology of the case, which means it misses how a bunch of smart legal minds could be so arrogant to railroad three teenagers and then dismiss all arguments in favor of their innocence. (As someone who’s lived his whole life in the south, I can tell you that this is just how men in leadership positions tend to orient themselves in my homeland. It’s not malicious; that sense of certainty is just ingrained. It’s a fundamentalist Christian thing.) On it’s own merits though, West Of Memphis is a well-assembled, well-argued doc that shows how our advocacy model of trial law can lead to the state spinning stories they know are probably untrue, and then using their authority to stand strong against any alternate theory, no matter how many millions of people believe it.
Grade: B

Several TIFF films were also seen by Nathan Rabin and Mike D’Angelo, at Sundance and Cannes, respectively. Here’s where you can find Nathan’s takes on….

John Dies At The End (B)
The Sessions (A-)
Smashed (B+)

And Mike on….

Amour (B+)
Beyond The Hills (B-)
The Hunt (C+)
In Another Country (C+)
In The Fog (C+)
Laurence Anyways (C+)
Like Someone In Love (WTF)
Me And You (C+)
Mekong Hotel (C)
No (B)
On The Road (C+)
The Paperboy (D-)
Paradise: Love (C+)
Post Tenebras Lux (C+)
Reality (B)
Room 237 (B-)
Rust And Bone (B)
The We And I (C+)

Tomorrow:Time-travel! Car chases! Old people! TIFF begins.