At the 34th Toronto International Film Festival, everyone’s seeing orange. The lower-case “tiff,” the color of a pumpkin, blares from posters and billboards throughout the city as a symbol of festival director Piers Handling’s determination to simplify everything, including the logo, in a movie orgy that has clearly outgrown itself. Last year, the sheer bloat of this annual circus inspired accusations of “elitism” and complaints that a beloved event started by three movie buffs in 1975 was “no longer the people’s film festival.” This year, in the midst of a hobbling global recession, the goal is to “return the festival to the people” as 312 feature films flow through every projector in the city, from 9 a.m. screenings for priority press to midnight-madness horror flicks featuring the latest assortment of infectious viruses, rampaging zombies and flesh-eating ghouls for the unwashed masses toting sandwich bags and styrofoam cups from Starbucks. (The projectionists sleep from 2 a.m. to dawn.) I don’t know about a return to simpler days, but there is certainly something here for every taste. You can see documentaries about Hugh Hefner and Glenn Gould; endless tracts on the war in Iraq; Michael Moore’s latest assault on capitalism (blame it all on Bush’s bank bailouts); Drew Barrymore’s making her directorial debut with Whip It, starring Ellen Page on roller skates; a vampire musical called Suck; Jewish liturgy from the Coen brothers; and another loathsome barf job by Danish wacko Lars von Trier called Antichrist, in which pickle-faced Charlotte Gainsbourg, who always looks embalmed, prunes away her genitalia with garden shears. Naturally, it will show up shortly in the New York Film Festival, the official depository for movies nobody wants to see, where torturing the audience has become an acknowledged priority.
Despite the volume of product, there is evidence wherever you turn that the fat has been trimmed. Recession-cautious buyers are stoic, and roughly 100 of the films on display have arrived without any distributors at all. Unlike Cannes, which has an actual film market resembling a tag sale, Toronto’s deals are more informal, with the buying and selling done on cell phones and in hotel lobbies. Hollywood studios are scaling back on the swag. There are fewer exclusive dinners, midnight cocktail soirees, corporate sponsors, red-carpet premieres, limousine rentals and hairdresser appointments. Nobody seems to care much about shelling out money, even for bragging rights. But George Christy’s coveted annual lunch at the Four Seasons went on as planned; Matt Damon hosted another charity benefit for underprivileged kids; and Joan Baez gave a free concert in the middle of the street. This year the lavish party circuit is taking a back seat to the movies, and glam venues like the Rosewater Supper Club and Ultra have a lot of blank pages in their reservation books.
Never mind. Swag or no swag, the boldface names are here anyway. Spotted in full gridlock on the red-carpet runway: Demi Moore, Ann-Margret, Norman Jewison, Mariah Carey, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Keanu Reeves, Viggo Mortensen, one-name-is-all-you-need Oprah, assorted Colins (Farrell and Firth), Jennifers (Connelly and Garner, but not Aniston) and Michaels (Caine, Douglas, Moore and J. Fox). Not to mention Bill Murray, Patricia Clarkson, Christopher Plummer, Penélope Cruz, Clive Owen, Edward Norton, Chris Rock, Nicolas Cage, Robin Wright Penn and others too famous to mention. They only stay long enough to suffer through the idiotic press conferences, pose and then head for the airport. Some of them don’t even have movies to plug. They’re just here for the photo ops. George Clooney is everywhere with his hand in a bandage—a good excuse for not signing autographs. Jane Fonda is not here, but sent some controversy in her place. When she heard about this year’s sidebar event honoring Israeli films and the city of Tel Aviv, she signed a protest letter attacking the Israelis and defending Palestine, which elicited an enraged response from Jon Voight, her co-star in Coming Home, who accused a deluded Jane of once again backing all the wrong people. Result: A series that stood every chance of being ignored suddenly had a new focus of world interest. Too bad Jane and cohorts like Harry Belafonte and Wallace Shawn didn’t know one of the films they boycotted was a collaboration between Israeli and Pakistani co-directors. I skipped Triage, an Irish war drama with Colin Farrell as a wounded front-lines freelance photographer in Kurdistan (he lost 25 pounds for the role by living on black coffee, cigarettes and two cans of tuna per day), and opted for a live auction where one of the prizes was tea with Diane Lane to “talk Hollywood, world issues and life.” Don’t ask.
WOLFING DOWN CLUB sandwiches and Yoo-hoos, you finally try to see some movies. After years of bad advice from festival brochures and eager press agents, experience (and failing eyesight) have taught me to cross off some contenders early, just from the synopses: like the one that “tells the story of 13-year-old Gunther, growing up in the 1980s in a household of drunks, gamblers and womanizers in small-town Belgium.” Or how about “an alcoholic actress trying to put her life together” and “a young mother struggling to shake a drug habit”? Sometimes the titles alone will do it (Bitch Slap, Women Without Men, The Men Who Stare at Goats). In all the clutter, I have still managed to see some amazing films. If Toronto sets the tone for the forthcoming awards season, you can plan ahead for a few riveting performances and welcome surprises. You also better plan to dress up for depression. Viggo Mortensen gives the performance of his career in the faithfully rendered film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s heartbreaking apocalyptic novel The Road. After an unspecified global catastrophe wipes out most of the world, including his wife (Charlize Theron), a desperate father (a gaunt Viggo), in an attempt to stay alive, takes his son on a long and dangerous journey to the sea across a burned-out America, encountering cannibalism, rape and other bleak nightmares amid the last remnants of human life (Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce among them). Artistically rendered by director John Hillcoat, sensitively adapted by Joe Penhall, hauntingly shot in many of the post-Katrina landscapes in southern Louisiana and wonderfully acted (especially by Viggo, whose face has been described as an El Greco etching), The Road is a tremendous achievement.
George Clooney is unveiling two alleged “comedies” simultaneously—one good, the other an insufferable disaster. In Jason (Juno) Reitman’s smart, cynical and witty Up in the Air, the suave Hollywood film personality his fans have erroneously labeled “the new Cary Grant” plays a cool, emotionally detached and swellegantly groomed businessman whose job is to fly around America downsizing companies and firing people. He’s a termination specialist whose only goal in life is to rack up 10 million frequent flyer miles. But fate intervenes when he meets a tough cookie played by the fantastic Vera Farmiga, and all bets are off when he breaks his own rules, falls in love against his better judgment and finds his heart. The payoff (a basically venal character who deceptively appears to have everything already reevaluates his career priorities when he learns how much he’s been missing) is not as sappy as it sounds, and the ending is a kick in the shins. Up in the Air often looks like an American Airlines commercial, and I wouldn’t call it a feel-good movie per se, but there’s a certain satisfaction watching two snappy, beautiful people at the top of their form. Mr. Clooney has never looked better, acted with more confidence or oozed more charm, but he’s no Cary Grant.
In an atrocity called The Men Who Stare at Goats, he’s just plain nothing at all. Intended as a farcical antidote to big-screen bores about Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s twice as pompous and endlessly tedious. His friend Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the excellent Good Night, and Good Luck with Mr. Clooney, now tries his hand at military satire in this idiotic tale of a top-secret brigade of brain-damaged lunatic soldiers trained in psychic and paranormal New Age warfare at Fort Bragg, N.C. Don’t ask. Ewan McGregor, who makes more movies than the Three Stooges in their heyday, plays a struggling journalist from a small paper in Ann Arbor, Mich., who, after being dumped by his wife, heads for Kuwait in 2003 as a war correspondent. While waiting for a permit to enter Iraq, he interviews Mr. Clooney, a nut case who was trained to read the enemy’s mind and now runs a dancing school. Don’t ask. The action shifts between Iraq and Fort Bragg in 1983, and includes moronic encounters with an aging hippie officer (Jeff Bridges) weaned on George Lucas movies who trains the unit to be modern Jedis; spouts nonsense about steroids and solar cooking; and conducts sadistic experiments on goats to see if they have telepathic powers. The villain is Kevin Spacey, as an officer whose specialty is spoon bending. Don’t ask. They’re all crazy, none of their theories work, and neither does the movie. When recruited to find General Noriega, Mr. Bridges says, “Ask Angela Lansbury.” In the deserted base hospital used for a goat lab, the Jedi warriors, brain-bombed by LSD, try to stop the heart of a goat by staring it to death, which inspires the war correspondent, heavily under sedation, to mutter, “The silence of the goats.” These are the gags, and gag is exactly what you’ll do. Mr. Bridges’ pony-tailed slob is a resuscitation of his old Dude character from The Big Lebowski, and Mr. McGregor’s constant fumbling of the word Jedi is supposed to be funny, considering his own background as Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s just stupid.
After her own contributions to the silly Star Wars franchise, Natalie Portman emerges for the first time on the screen as a ravishingly beautiful woman of ripe maturity and emotional depth in Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, an intelligent study of complex family relationships in contemporary Manhattan, by writer-director Don Roos, whose credits include the startling The Opposite of Sex. Ms. Portman plays Emilia Greenleaf, a law firm assistant who guilelessly breaks up the marriage of her boss (Scott Cohen) and his acerbic wife (Lisa Kudrow) and becomes his second wife, enriching his life with a happiness he’s never known, until their infant daughter tragically smothers to death. Blaming herself for the accident, and trying to cope with false but overwhelming guilt and simultaneously win the affection of her brilliant but uncooperative stepson (played by Charlie Tahan, a remarkable kid with sensitivity and vision beyond his years), Emilia attempts to be all things to all people on two sides of a tangled family she never set out to inherit in the first place, which leads to domestic dilemmas and alienation for all. What could have been a real soap opera is leavened by a talented cast and director Roos, who always knows how to balance the sugar by adding vinegar. The star—and the film—are real revelations.
The most unforgettable film I’ve seen also has the most forgettable title. I dare you to remember Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, or to even say it three times in a row. But it is raw, electrically charged, heart-rending and completely shattering. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and arriving on waves of raves from Cannes, it’s an almost documentary-style look at the diabolically cruel life of a 300-pound retarded Harlem teenager called Precious who dreams of being somebody normal despite the punishing struggles of being H.I.V.-positive; pregnant with her second baby by her own father; and the victim of continual hatred and abuse, both physical and verbal, by a mother who cares about nothing but the next welfare check. It’s horrifying but hopeful, and I hope to write about it in more detail when it opens soon in New York, but for now I will simply say it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon experience that tests the boundaries of film, with an electrifying, positively Oscar-worthy performance by salty stand-up comic Mo’Nique, as the most monstrous mother on the planet.
More greatness from Get Low, a Faulknerian Southern tale set in the 1930s, and from Robert Duvall, in his first leading role in years, as a grizzled old backwoods hermit and object of curiosity for 40 years who shocks the community and his old flame (Sissy Spacek) by planning an elaborate funeral party replete with raffle tickets that will reward the winner with 300 acres of virgin timber land—music to the ears of the local mortician (Bill Murray). Mr. Duvall is a blooming miracle, and so is a film this original and unusual. And there’s more—from Werner Herzog, Alain Resnais, Steven Soderbergh, Pedro Almodóvar, Australia’s actress-turned-director Rachel Ward and fashion designer Tom Ford, not to mention a one-minute film by the long-winded Jean-Luc Godard. Careful, old man, you’ll hurt yourself.
In the second week, when the festival rounds the turn, films multiply, fatigue builds to a crisis point no Valium can ease, and everything collapses. No soap or mouthwash has been delivered to my hotel room for two days, and the Internet telephone lines no longer work, but like a masochistic fool I reach again for the official program book to see what’s playing. It’s 452 pages long and weighs almost as much as the New York telephone directory. Then I take one more glance at the New Yorker cartoon I’ve pasted over my desk of two miserable vacationers peering out from a collapsing tent with the caption: “I don’t think there’s enough vodka for another week in Canada.”
This year in Toronto, a talisman to live by.