Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Toronto 2013, Day One: A Julian Assange biopic is no match for a Frederick Wiseman triumph

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Toronto International Film Festival used to reserve its opening-night slot for homegrown productions (Passchendaele, Score: A Hockey Musical), but that’s changed. Last year the fest boosted the hype factor by selecting Looper as its curtain-raiser, and this year anticipation was arguably even higher for The Fifth Estate, the inevitable Julian Assange movie. Indeed, with the Manning verdict and Edward Snowden’s WikiLeaks-abetted legal travails still in the news, the film is in danger of being by upstaged by headlines at any moment. It’s tempting to paraphrase George Wyner from Spaceballs: “Instant biopics! They’re out in theaters before the story is finished.”

Except that The Fifth Estate (Grade: C+), slick and superficially entertaining, doesn’t have much news to impart. The opening-credit montage pays tribute to the entire history of written communication, beginning with the hieroglyph—and anyone who’s paid even passing attention to a website, newspaper, or scroll since the onset of the decade will have a good sense of exactly how the film plays out. A would-be cross between The Social Network and Carlos, The Fifth Estate stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange in the kind of mannered, imitative performance best perfected through repeat viewings of 60 Minutes. Daniel Brühl plays cohort Daniel Domscheit-Berg, on whose book the film is based, an idealist computer whiz who regards Assange as a visionary but eventually comes to see him as reckless for a reluctance to redact names (and also a distraction from settling down with his girlfriend, played by Alicia Vikander).


As a director, Bill Condon has given us two wonderfully unconventional biopics, Gods And Monsters (1998) and Kinsey (2004), both of which took a free hand but cut to the heart of the intellectual and creative capacities of the men. Jazzed up with woeful attempts to make chatrooms “cinematic,” The Fifth Estate deals with Assange in broad terms, skirting some of the color in this account by Bill Keller and essentially relegating his Swedish legal troubles to a footnote. The film presents arguments both pro and con: Laura Linney is on hand as a State Department official charged with rescuing an outed source from Libya, while David Thewlis delivers a cringingly on-the-nose monologue about the importance of radical thinking in journalism. For a film ostensibly advocating openness and access, The Fifth Estate doesn’t have much faith in its audience.

Fortunately, the fest offered an antidote in Frederick Wiseman’s towering At Berkeley (Grade: A), a four-hour immersion in student life that puts a gratifying amount of trust in its viewers. Wiseman’s trademark non-involvement style at first seems an ill fit for an environment that allows students to pontificate at length. But over the course of an epic running time, his trees-to-forest portrait—which includes classroom discussions of income disparities in education; debates on how to deal with state funding reductions; navigation of town-gown relations; a seminar on Walden and a scene from Our Town—patterns emerge. Academia is seen as an ongoing negotiation between idealism and pragmatism, the individual and the community, young and old, students and faculty. Budgets have to be cut, but lawns still have to be mowed if the university is still to retain a sense of prestige. An institution that prides itself on its diversity can still have racial tensions. At a protest, students chant “No cuts, no fees. Education must be free!” to an administration filled with former radicals, who are caught in a bind between what the university represents and what it can afford.


It’s significant that Wiseman, despite living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the shadow of both Harvard and MIT, has chosen as his subject one of the last few nominally public universities that consistently ranks among the best in the nation. Wiseman’s Berkeley is a microcosm of society: Like the boxing gym in his Boxing Gym (2010), the college is viewed as a sort of utopia, but an unsustainable one. “Your education will never depreciate in value,” a campus financial advisor tells students struggling with debt obligations—a statement on which the film reserves judgment. The movie opens by suggesting that a founding principle of Berkeley was the notion that people should be able to study even if they aren’t part of an elite—yet from what we see of the way the college is run, elitism is part and parcel of the academic experience. Why do we learn, how do we learn, and what is learning worth? Complex, absorbing, and pointed, At Berkeley is an exhilarating examination of the “education machine.”

The day also offered an unusually high number of self-reflexive filmmaker portraits. Still banned from making movies, Iran’s Jafar Panahi has pulled off another clandestine production, Closed Curtain (Grade: B)—a more overtly playful meditation on the creative ban than his great This Is Not A Film (2011), albeit a much more conventionally allegorical one. Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson and Filipino filmmaker Raya Martin go gonzo in La Última Película, which follows an American director (Alex Ross Perry) heading down to Mexico to make a film on the eve of the Mayan apocalypse. It’s an homage to—and even re-stages scenes from—Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1970), except with the impending death of celluloid, that title can now be taken literally. (Of film stock, Perry says at the outset, “We bought it all, we shot it all.”) Notably, it’s one of only a handful of titles at Toronto that’s not screening digitally. (I shouldn’t give it a grade because I’m on friendly terms with Peranson and Perry in real life.) Most mysterious was Catherine Breillat’s Abuse Of Weakness (Grade: B-), essentially a veiled confession of Breillat’s apparent experience being swindled by a con man after she suffered a stroke. Isabelle Huppert plays a very different Breillat surrogate than Anne Parillaud’s manic caricature from Sex Is Comedy (2002). The movie is interesting to think about as another of the Anatomy Of Hell director’s power-struggle portraits, even if its conceit—by design—leaves the question of how the filmmaker allowed a known operator to bilk her out of so much money unresolved. —Ben Kenigsberg

Unlike my industrious colleague, who hit the ground running with a whopping five screenings, I slacked off on my first day of TIFF with a mere two. Some of that was bad luck—I got shut out of the opening night Midnight Madness selection, All Cheerleaders Die, co-directed by the underrated Lucky McKee (May)—but it was also partially a matter of pacing myself. With six more days here in Toronto, some of which I’ll pack with just as many movies, it seemed prudent to ease may way into the weeklong watching binge.

Besides, what better way to kick off this annual cinema summit than with a midday screening of The Past (Grade: B+), my most anticipated film of not just the fest, but also the year on a whole? Iranian director Asghar Farhadi dropped on a lot of radars with A Separation, his 2011 masterpiece about a broken family and the tense legal crisis that engulfs it. The Past, which premiered at Cannes in May to somewhat muted acclaim, suffers slightly when compared to its predecessor, in part because it finds Farhadi repeating some of the same narrative tricks. But the film also confirms the director’s status as a contemporary master, one with a gift for pressure-cooker dramatic scenarios and an acute understanding of how divorce—even when mutual—can send shockwaves through an extended family.


On some level, it’s possible to see The Past as a kind of alternate-universe version of A Separation, examining what might have occurred in the earlier film had its heroine made good on her plans to leave the country. Here, it’s the man (Ali Mosaffa) who fled, returning to Iran and abandoning his wife (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and her children in France. (The girls—one a teenager, the other a little younger—are from Bejo’s previous marriage.) The movie opens four years after the split, with Mosaffa returning to Paris to sign divorce papers, so that Bejo can tie the knot for a third time. Her new husband-to-be, played by A Prophet star Tahar Rahim, has a young son and a wife in a coma. Into this crowded household goes Mosaffa, his reappearance upsetting the delicate, uneasy balance inside. As in A Separation, a calmly observational opening act gives way to tempests of emotion, stirred up by secrets and lies. Who’s withholding information, and why, becomes crucial.

Alas, there’s something less than organic about the way Farhadi executes the transition this time. Partly, that’s because some of the complications hinge on the involvement of a supporting character who doesn’t factor into the proceedings until later on. And the revelations, stacked up against each other, aren't as expertly meted out as they are in A Separation. The Past is a less controlled film: The drama occasionally collapses into melodrama; Bejo—who’s terrific in the quieter scenes—is often asked to behave like a hysterical hot mess. (Part of what made A Separation so persuasive was that just about all the characters, even the hotheaded ones, acted in a way that felt relatable and understandable.)


Flaws aside, there’s no denying the potency of the film’s thematic thrust. Farhadi possesses a keen understanding of the way our old relationships cling to our hearts, jeopardizing our new ones. Per its on-the-nose title, The Past is fundamentally—and somewhat ironically, given the similarities to its predecessor—about how self-destructive it can be to dwell on yesterday. For me, the movie works best when focusing on Mosaffa’s character, a figure of intense but understated melancholy. There’s something unbearably moving about watching this man attempt, for not entirely selfless reasons, to mend the family he’s lost. With no biological link to his ex’s children, he has no place in their lives anymore, but can’t quite suppress his paternal affection for them. Nor can the kids entirely forget this surrogate father figure who disappeared from their home. That’s a very real circumstance that the movies rarely explore. If I can convince myself that it’s intrinsically linked to all the other… stuff that happens in the second half, The Past may leap up in my estimation.

The other film I caught on day one of the “festival of festivals” was also a Cannes holdover, this year’s Palme D’Or winner, Blue Is The Warmest Color (Grade: A-). In an unprecedented move, Steven Spielberg and his Cannes jury gave the award not just to the film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret Of The Grain), but also to its two young stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Having now seen the movie, I can say that the decision makes perfect sense—the acting is not just crucial, but kind of the whole show—though I’d also argue that Seydoux’s work isn’t quite as essential. Make no mistake, she’s excellent in the film, as the blue-haired object of the heroine's burgeoning desire. But Blue Is The Warmest Color belongs to Exarchopoulos, an astoundingly expressive young actress whose face—frequently framed in close-up, the better to read every telling, minute shift in emotion—becomes the film’s defining image. She plays a French high-schooler who discovers, much to her surprise, that she prefers the company of women. Or one woman, at least: Seydoux’s college-age artist, whose passing glance on the street, a momentous moment of identity-shaking attraction, plants the seed for an impending romance.


On paper, Blue Is The Warmest Color is a fairly ordinary coming-of-age love story, stretched like taffy over a three-hour timeframe. In execution, it proves to be something more unique. For one, Kechiche wastes little of the epic running time. The extra leg room allows for more specificity, with the director devoting ample time to Exarchopoulos’ waning friendships, her brief relationship with a boy, her seduction by Seydoux, and the subsequent affair. (By providing and lingering on details, the director rescues his movie from young-love cliche.) Extended classroom scenes, which depict the protagonist as a student and then later a teacher, provide a kind of elegant, Greek-chorus commentary on the film’s events. The fact that the love story is between two women both is and isn’t important; Kechiche doesn’t deny the social pressures put on his characters, but he also doesn’t let that element hijack the narrative.

As for the sex scenes, they’re as insanely erotic as advertised; it’s not just their frankness and duration that counts, but their emotional intensity, too. While many movies treat sex as either sleazy or “romantically” mannered, here’s one that depicts it as a messy, sometimes ungraceful act of pure connection. (It helps that Kechiche lays the groundwork with a few sensually charged conversations, including the long one in which Exarchopoulos somewhat improbably tracks down her future lover at a lesbian bar.) Blue Is The Warmest Color doesn’t quite sustain its dramatic power throughout; the later scenes aren’t as compelling as the earlier ones, perhaps because (minor spoiler alert) the film pays closer attention to how its characters are drawn together than how they drift apart. That said, Exarchopoulos carries it through; her features are the canvas on which Kechiche paints this story of lust, self-discovery, and regret. If everything else I see between now and next Thursday is as good as this, I won’t beat myself up about only fitting two movies into opening day. Not too much, anyway. —A.A. Dowd