Dispatches from True North: Hyde Park on Hudson and Argo Are Hits; Cloud Atlas Is A Snore

Strapped with a reporter's notebook and a bag full of NoDoz, our critic journeys into the kink

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Redford in The Company You Keep.

Of course it doesn’t matter how much movies change. For better or worse, there will always be directors and writers obsessed with the classics. So we have new takes on Great Expectations—starring Ralph Fiennes as the terrifying convict Magwitch, the too-handsome-to-live Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) asPip, Helena Bonham-Carter as a demented Miss Havisham replete with creeped-out cobwebs in her hair—and Anna Karenina, in a lavish production that teams director Joe Wright for the third time with his muse, Keira Knightley. The former gets a brand new ending. Director Mike Newell explains: “Well, Dickens has two, and I didn’t like either one.” But purists will be happy to know that despite Ms. Knightley’s beauty, Tolstoy’s Anna still ends up on the same railroad tracks. One of my favorite books-on-film at TIFF transports the dysfunctional characters in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew to contemporary Manhattan with wrenching success. In the story of a little girl 6 years old trapped between two sets of parents separated by divorce, Julianne Moore weaves an indelible tapestry of motherhood in peril as a pop singer too self-absorbed to take care of the child who loves her, but it is really Alexander Skarsgard, as the new husband she selfishly marries to be a babysitter, and incandescent newcomer Joanna Vanderham, as the child’s new stepmother, who become surrogate parents and steal the movie in the process. I also loved actor-director Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep—a galvanizing dossier on what happened to the radical terrorists on the FBI’s Most Wanted List known as “Weathermen” who have spent the last 30 years in hiding after they killed American citizens in the 1960s to protest the war in Vietnam. In his best role in years, Mr. Redford plays a former nonviolent member of the Weather Underground, now an Albany lawyer and single dad whose orderly world is turned upside down when he is exposed by an ambitious reporter (Shia LaBeouf), falsely accused of robbery and the murder of a bank guard, and judged guilty by association. To clear his name, he is forced to root out the friends in the underground movement from his past who are all fugitives. His cross-country search grows from one phone call into a mystery of epic twists and relentless thrills. Proving again that good movies can offer extensive entertainment value and say something valid about history at the same time, Mr. Redford directs a sprawling canvas of diverse characters and heads a cast that includes Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson and Stanley Tucci.

Toronto wouldn’t be the same without the kink factor. Yesterday I saw a man on roller skates in a vampire costume, passing out leaflets for an animated cartoon featuring the voice of Adam  Sandler as Dracula, and after dinner with the fabulous Marion  Cotillard, who plays a double amputee in love with an illegal bare-knuckle fighter in a new film about sex and the disabled called Rust and Bone, I dropped in at a party plugging a grim horror about a heroin dealer, where Jell-O shots were served in hypodermic needles. Sometimes you avoid a potential disaster like an outbreak of mad cow disease just by reading the synopsis. Example: something Canadian (always a risky sign) called Tower. “34-year-old Derek, who lives at home with his parents, is single and without a career. Although he aspires to be a graphic animator, he works part-time at his uncle’s construction company. He wanders the street alone and frequents nightclubs in search of companionship. When a neighborhood raccoon becomes a constant nuisance by tearing up his family’s garbage, Derek sets out to catch it. It will change his life forever.” They stayed away in droves.

But long lines persist for 29 documentaries, about everything from political prisoner Angela Davis on the 40th anniversary of her acquittal as a terrorist, to Marilyn Monroe and Snoop Dogg. There’s Caught in the Web by Kaige Chen (Farewell, My Concubine),about China in the Internet age, and Storm Surfers in 3-D,which captures the breathtaking adventures of the surfing cultists who risk their lives riding the waves during hurricanes and other disasters at sea. One of the best is Barry Avrich’s long-awaited Show Stopper, a fascinating chronicle of the rise and fall of disgraced Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky, who masterminded Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, entertained glamorous friendships with Diahann Carroll, Elaine Stritch and Chita Rivera, and landed in prison for what the court called “avant-garde bookkeeping.” Penetrating stuff, as is Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, about one of the longest running sagas in  the history of the California criminal justice system—the never-ending legal battle to lure a once-great director out of exile and back to the U.S. after 30 years. The case just drags on and on, altering the lives of both Polanski and Samantha Geimer, the underage girl he is accused of raping, who just prays for peace and wishes it would all go away, like a bad movie. Or a bad cocktail—every year there’s a new one. This year, Bruce Willis, Jennifer Lawrence, Viggo Mortensen, Hugh Grant, Mark Ruffalo and Bradley Cooper are scarfing down a concoction named after Gwyneth Paltrow—Tromba tequila, cassis and ginger beer with blackberries and a splash of Tabasco for 20 bucks a belt.

Then you stagger past the big stone church on the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road where every year the pastor posts a talisman to live by. This year, in big letters: “The world is bad enough. Let’s make it better. Think simplicity.” Whoever wrote that has never been to the Toronto Film Festival.

rreed@observer.com