At the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival (a.k.a. TIFF), you have to rub your eyes to make sure you’re not dreaming. I mean, in this corner, you have 82-year-old former President Jimmy Carter, celebrating Jonathan Demme’s new film Man From Plains, about his post-White House work building homes for the poor with Habitat for Humanity and offering candid, uncensored views on everything from poetry and religion to Al Jazeera and the Bush Administration. Across the street, you have impassioned talk show host-turned-antiwar activist Phil Donahue, making his debut as a film director with Body of War, a wrenching documentary celebrating the bravery of a patriotic soldier who enlisted two days after 9/11 to fight the men in Afghanistan who attacked his country, but got sent instead to Iraq, where he was shot and paralyzed for life. It’s a movie that feeds the lie to the hypocritical slogan “Support our troops!” And everywhere you look, you see the ubiquitous, unstoppable Paris Hilton, exposing both roots and navel, sipping detox tea, and celebrating … herself!
With an estimated 300,000 movie buffs rubbing shoulders with 500 stars and 1,100 accredited members of the press, all pushing their way into 349 movies from 55 countries in 10 days, it is positively amazing that everyone seems so polite. Even Woody Allen is smiling and Brad Pitt ignores his bodyguards. Nobody complains about heightened security measures that now require us all to slide our passes through scanning devices before we enter every screening. (Don’t try this in New York.) Eager enthusiasts who order their tickets a year before the schedule is announced will sit goggle-eyed in the dark munching popcorn from dawn until long after midnight, when the projectors stop and the lights come on, and anyone attached to a ringing cellphone risks bodily injury. No, TIFF is not called the “festival of festivals” for nothing. What started three decades ago as an idea in a friend’s living room by three gonzo fans who wanted to bring a wider diversity of films to Toronto has expanded into a cultural event of global impact with an annual budget of $18 million, employing more than 130 full-time and 500 part-time staff, and depending on the services of 1,700 volunteers, all of whom are working like mules in the cotton field. It’s more fun and much better organized than Cannes, without the garlic, the rudeness or the body odor—not to mention the shock of being knocked to the ground by cops on horseback when you try to see a movie. (And then once you do get in, you find yourself sitting next to the chambermaid who cleaned your hotel room that morning.) Toronto is also bigger. This year’s festival program is 480 pages thick and too heavy to carry. Matt Damon, Clive Owen, Sean Penn, Sigourney Weaver, Charlize Theron, Patricia Clarkson, Laura Linney, Aaron Eckhart, Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Brangelina are here, but who has time to notice? According to one Toronto wag, the week after this cinema-saturated bedlam subsides, hotel rates slice in half and the town returns to sensible shoes, leaf blowers and stories about real estate taxes and public-transit deficits. But for now, all anyone thinks, eats, sleeps or talks about is movies, movies, movies.
The first thing you do is grab your Visine and see some. TIFF raises the curtain on the fall season and opens the gate to Oscar predictions, so you can get ready for an explosion of excitement, and you might as well start with Jodie Foster’s galvanizing star turn in the explosive new urban revenge drama The Brave One. Under the skillful direction of Ireland’s Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), this nerve-wracking suspense thriller has you in a hammerlock hold from start to finish. In a risky performance full of grit, polish and honesty, one that seems destined to win the two-time Oscar winner another nomination, the star plays Erica Bain, a popular radio personality who walks the city, witnessing the ugly and the beautiful, finding stories in everything from the forgotten joy of Eloise to the sleaziness of the Chelsea Hotel, in a post 9/11 metropolis that was not saved by Rudy Giuliani, despite his self-congratulatory claims, but turned instead into Dodge City. One night while walking their dog in Central Park, Erica and her fiancé are so savagely bludgeoned by thugs that he dies from his wounds and she ends up in a hospital with multiple fractures and a face the color of rotten veal. After three weeks in a coma, she emerges alive but dead inside. Grief-stricken, emotionally isolated and so increasingly paranoid about the horror of what she endured and narrowly survived that she becomes reclusive, creatively blocked, unable to work and afraid of every footstep on the sidewalk behind her. Seeking help from the police turns into a game of phone tag. The man she loved and lost becomes a forgotten unsolved case in a precinct filing cabinet in a city of impersonal red tape. Despair turns to rage; Erica acquires a Glock 9-millimeter pistol illegally, learns to use it and begins to patrol the streets of her once-favorite metropolis, finding a part of herself that has always been a stranger there. From a shadow under a street lamp that does not move to white powder in your mailbox, there are so many things to fear in New York that it’s no small wonder cave dwellers are not all as mad as hungry hyenas. Erica finds out why when she prowls the streets after dark, eliminating the threats. At first, her violent encounters fall under the heading of accidental self-defense: a maniac who kills his wife in a 7-11 convenience store and turns to Erica as his next victim; then two vicious muggers terrorizing a subway train. But soon the adrenaline kicks in and a balanced, intelligent woman becomes a cross between Bernard Goetz and Charles Bronson, as her anonymous assassin becomes a sensational heroine of the tabloid press. When one idealistic cop (Terrence Howard) takes a personal interest in the case of both her murdered boyfriend and the demand to identify the mystery poster girl for vigilante justice, Erica interviews him, her producer (Mary Steenburgen) opens up her show to call-ins, the station skyrockets to ratings success and her predicament becomes more complex. By the time the death toll mounts to eight, the morality of justice wins out over the morality of law. In a film full of shocks, the biggest surprise of all is that it’s a black NYPD cop who becomes Erica’s biggest ally in her search for the cretins who ruined her life.
The controversies are obvious, but one of the many strengths of The Brave One is that it makes no moral judgments. It doesn’t have to. This is no neatly resolved Death Wish, no burly, two-fisted guy thing. This computer-age equivalent of a Deadwood gunslinger is now a 5-foot-3 blonde, well-educated and keenly rational, who realizes the danger of getting even with the lawless is becoming one of them. People will always argue that the law may be faulty, but it’s the only law we’ve got. This is the story of a victim who steps outside that law, breaking all the rules to make it work. In today’s troubled times, the world is filled daily with fresh examples of how the law has become so distorted that it handcuffs not only the innocent, but the cops we hire to protect us. Terrence Howard is one cop so fed up with fighting the system that he decides to show one brave and desperate private citizen how to do it herself. Thus, he stops being a cop and becomes a human being. Erica knows she’s wrong, but becomes empowered by the freedom of her own scale of justice. In a narrative that invites every angle for legitimate debate, there are no real heroes, no one-dimensional villains and no easy resolutions. Jodie Foster is the perfect actor to meet the challenge. She is fantastic to watch as she finds the stoic marble in her dormant soul by making moral decisions that are socially unacceptable. Unmasking sensitive social issues rare for a mainstream movie, and The Brave One is truly one of the great movies of 2007—powerful, truthful, captivating, and overwhelming.
The ill-advised title of Brad Pitt’s festival centerpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (try saying that at top speed three times in a row) in no way diminishes the lyrical beauty and poetic sensitivity of a revisionist chronicle of the last days of America’s most famous outlaw. It plays like a Wagnerian opera with shotguns.
Gutsy, intractable, restless, torn between a lust for crime and a responsibility to the wife and children he held paramount, Jesse saw both joy and tragedy on his way to becoming a legend. In Jesse’s autumnal years, his old gang was in prison or dead, his estranged brother Frank (Sam Shepard) had moved to Virginia, and his marriage to his cousin Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) was settling into a comfortable home life in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse went by the name Thomas Howard. But bored with retirement and itching for one last robbery, he recruited a new gang of gunmen, rustlers and safecrackers that included two brothers named Charley and Bob Ford (Sam Rockwell and Casey Affleck). It was the biggest mistake he ever made. Bob was an ambitious teenage loser with no skills or personality, mistakenly convinced he was destined for greatness by riding the coattails of the country’s most wanted desperado. A blushing fan in the days when outlaws were like today’s movie stars, he collected clippings and books about the James brothers in a box under his bed, but as the internecine jealousies, distrusts and conflicts among renegades intensified after the notches on their guns had faded, he started thinking of a way to turn in his idol for the reward money. So obsessed with his mentor that he would lie down on Jesse’s bed to smell his talcum powder, Bob was in love, but jealousy and greed took over. On April 3, 1882, he shot his hero in the back while he stood on a chair, peacefully and unarmed, dusting a picture frame on the wall. Jesse James was 34 years old.
The movie catalogs these events meticulously, but doesn’t stop there. Thousands made a pilgrimage to the cottage to view the corpse, laid out in ice on the dining room table. Fifty thousand dollars was offered by P. T. Barnum to tour the body as a circus attraction. The Fords were pardoned, and with the reward money they took their story to Broadway, where Bob gunned down Jesse James in cold blood all over again for more than 800 performances, sometimes leaping off the stage for fistfights with hostile audiences. Inevitably, their sorry lives ended in murder and suicide. It is impossible to overstate the museum quality of Roger Deakins’ haunting cinematography—rails carrying a train toward a James gang robbery, illumined in the darkness only by the light of a lantern, children playing outside a window framed by wallpaper stained with blood, the cruelly clenched jaw of a killer playing with a snake—or the intimacy of so many finely honed performances. Fast becoming one of our best screen actors, Mr. Pitt is an unforgettable Jesse James—funny, psychotic, sad, depressed, sick with lung disease and so cautious he can cock his own gun in his sleep if a floorboard creaks. The big surprise is Casey Affleck—cocky, crazy, naïve, his eyes at half–mast, always closer to his brain than his eyebrows. Together, they insightfully demonstrate how the potential of heroism is always more romantic than the reality. Writer-director Andrew Dominik eschews big action sequences for small moments of exquisite interplay and keeps us firmly planted in time and place. I don’t think I have ever seen a director present a more staunchly unromantic view of the Old West.
Despite the abundance of artistry in every frame, the film has divided audiences here; I agree with its detractors about only one thing: the length. Two hours and 40 minutes is just too long for any movie, and this one could be greatly improved by judicious editing. Still, to avoid it for fear of exhaustion is to miss out on one of the most majestic achievements about the transformation of an entire way of life in the changing West that has ever been captured in a motion picture.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a festival without a few outrageous oddballs and more than the usual allotment of blood, gore and soft-core porn, but a film from Argentina called XXY is, I believe, a factual case study of a 15-year-old hermaphrodite. It’s the grim story of Manitoba-born David Reimer, whose parents raised him as a girl after a botched circumcision severed his penis. Pressured to choose a gender, he chose both, finally falling in love with the son of a surgeon his parents invited home to remove what remained of his sex organs. But the long and painful years of surgery and psychotherapy took their toll, and he committed suicide at the age of 38. Not a happy story, and unlikely to play at your local mall, but gripping and very well made, XXY is still less shocking than a horror from Belgium called Ex Drummer, about a punk-rock band that makes Marilyn Manson look like Perry Como. The singer is a Nazi woman-hating skinhead rapist, the guitarist is a deaf junkie, and the bass player has a paralyzed arm due to a near-fatal accident during masturbation, with various boyfriends in attendance as groupies and a bald, 300-pound mother as the band’s road manager. All they need is a drummer. It’s not a comedy. The savagery and ear-splitting rock ’n’ roll noise spiral downward into chaotic, sexually explicit violence.
There’s so much more. Kenneth Branagh brought his wickedly entertaining remake of Anthony Shaffer’s nasty, sharp thriller Sleuth, about a vengeful old mystery writer who matches wits and murder plots in a remote country estate with an attractive younger man he suspects of stealing his wife, with Michael Caine in the role Laurence Olivier played in the wonderful 1972 version, and Jude Law in the “Get the Guest” role Mr. Caine originally played himself. Lethal games, cocktails, state-of-the-art weapons, and a devilish screenplay by Harold Pinter are perks in a shrewdly entertaining tour de force. And the talk of TIFF is David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with lines two blocks long to see hunky Viggo Mortensen as a chauffeur for the Russian Mafia in London, punching it out in a steam bath stark naked with knives, razors and fists, and full-frontally baring it all for four whole minutes of unbearable violence that leaves nothing to the imagination. Call it Balls of Fury, in more ways than one.
Not exactly a dull first week in Toronto.
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