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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Affleck in Argo.

In a time of cultural anemia and economic crisis, everything else in the arts may be slowing down, but at the Toronto International Film Festival (a k a TIFF), it’s full-speed ahead. Cannes and Berlin have gone on a diet. Even Venice, the oldest film festival in the world, scaled back this year’s program dramatically, showing a total of 82 movies instead of last year’s 104—only 18 of them considered good enough to compete for prizes. But now, in its 37th year, TIFF is like a goose stuffed for foie gras until its insides explode, showing no sign of trimming the fat from its over-stuffed schedule. By stubbornly trying to be everything to everybody, TIFF has drawn sharp criticism from veteran journalists who accuse it of losing focus and prestige, but the excess rages on. This year, the Toronto programming committee, oblivious to the darts, brags about a bloated schedule of 372 films in 10 days—289 features and 83 shorts from 72 countries, 146 of them world premieres—undaunted in the festival’s power to lure stars, directors and films of dubious quality. “It’s too much!” is the constant cry from everyone suffering from bloodshot eyes, sudden strangers to nutrition and sleep, walking around in a daze with scorepads like spectators at a roulette wheel, living on pizza and NoDoz. 

Beginning at 8 a.m. and ending the next morning at 2, after the zombies, aliens and serial killers roll out in the late-night screamfest called “Midnight Madness,” the movies come at you in sections. You get the serious stuff that usually ends up at Lincoln Center, like the latest films from Marco Bellocchio, Bernardo Bertolucci and Spike Lee—all vying for attention between red-carpet arrivals of Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley and Ryan Gosling. Gebo and the Shadow is an overdose of tedium by Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, who has directed a new film at age 103 with Jeanne Moreau and Claudia Cardinale, and I walked out in the middle of a thing by South Korean Hong Sang-soo called In Another Country about three women in the seaside town of Mohang, all named Anne, and all played by Isabelle Huppert. The thing that makes TIFF so popular is the diverse menu that satisfies every palate—commercial narrative films for the black-tie galas, experimental works about digital technology, weightier subjects that run the gamut from pedophiles and incest to imprisoned Iranian filmmakers, global change and savage criminals littering the streets with corpses, and art-house puzzlements nobody will ever see again, even in an art house. Just when you think you can’t see one more decapitated head, viral epidemic or cancer patient dying of Alzheimer’s, help arrives in the guise of Tommy Lee Jones in the rousing war saga Emperor, playing granite-faced, pipe-smoking General Douglas MacArthur as he decides the fate of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito following his surrender to Allied forces in 1945, and, on a lighter note, Bill Murray doing an awesome impersonation of none other than—get ready—President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he hosted the King and Queen of England in 1939 on the first visit of a reigning British monarch to the U.S.A. The film is Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson, and it’s one of the don’t-miss events of the forthcoming movie season. Packed with details, insights and historical footnotes, including an amorous relationship at FDR’s upstate New York manor with his second cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), it’s a charming film of elegance and humor, but never played for obvious laughs. I enjoyed it immensely.

In the pile of pretentious, incomprehensible gibberish that keeps film festivals going and multiplex audiences heading for the exit doors, make a note to avoid Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder,a lethally boring 112-minute fiasco that is like watching milk curdle. As much as I hated last year’s Malick Muddle, The Tree of Life, this simpering dreck makes that one look like an action epic with Stallone and Schwartzenegger combined. Plotless and almost mute, it features Ben Affleck as a meandering misfit in Paris who meets a woman and returns with her to Oklahoma for the wedding, but the relationship peters out and he wafts into the arms of an old childhood sweetheart, played by gorgeous Rachel McAdams. No Tree of Life dinosaurs this time, but nothing else happens either, and you can count the lines of dialogue on one hand. It usually takes Mr. Malick an average of 10 years between films. In four decades, he’s only made four. This one he should have burned after four days. More cinematic novocaine arrives with The Master, the latest hyperthyroidal discharge from Paul Thomas Anderson, arguably the biggest phony working in films today. Except for his 1997 debut feature, Boogie Nights, I have loathed every loopy, sensationalistic thing he’s done. This one is no exception. It pretends to be about a violent, dimwitted, unfocused mental case (Joaquin Phoenix, in a projectile fit of hysterical overacting that is laughable) who falls into the clutches of a smarmy religious cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman does L. Ron Hubbard). The wags predict it will blow the lid off Scientology. But The Master is not really about anything. It opens next week at home, so the firing squad can wait. Another grueling fiasco auditioning for American apathy and empty box-office receipts is a three-hour ordeal called Cloud Atlas,co-directed by Germany’s Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski, the freaky team responsible for the forgettable trio of Matrix pictures. It’s based on a sprawling novel of time-traveling, mind-bending, millennia-hopping pretentious excess by David Mitchell that everybody called “unfilmable.” They were right. A ridiculously bewigged Tom Hanks, looking like Elton John with steel-framed specs and long blonde curls, heads a befuddled cast that includes Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon—all playing five or six different roles of both genders in disconnected narratives set on 19th century slave ships, on the streets of modern crime-riddled California, on a doomed planet in a futuristic galaxy in outer space, in the music world of 1931 Belgium, in a retirement home near London and amid the rocky ruins of a post-apocalyptic country (Hawaii, anyone?) populated by tattooed natives babbling a language that has not been invented yet. You sit there, slack-jawed and worn out after three hours of zoned-out twaddle, waiting for something to make sense, but nothing ever does. “Ambitious” is the word they’ve been tossing around at TIFF, but the nouns that most accurately describe Cloud Atlas are too rude to use in public.

The best film I have seen is Argo, a brilliant and complex enactment of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, compellingly directed by and starring Ben Affleck as CIA “exfiltration” agent Tony Mendez, who rescued six members of the American Embassy in Tehran and sneaked them past the machine guns and out of the country by disguising them as a Hollywood film crew. A great film and a total triumph for Mr. Affleck, Argo is destined to be one of the year’s biggest hits. Close but no cigar, the vigorous, violent but ultimately disappointing cop-buddy drama End of Watch also opens this week at home. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are officers Taylor and Zavala, two gung-ho ghetto cops patrolling the back alleys, train tracks and crack dens of South Central L.A., where the Latinos have moved in on the blacks, the fried chicken takeout joints have been replaced with taco stands, and everybody is killing everybody else in sight. The protagonists hate their perps, and they hate their fellow officers, but they love their jobs, relishing every opportunity to bash heads, spill blood and destroy as much property as the law allows. In fact they take their jobs so seriously that the Mexican drug cartel orders a contract on their lives, and the tragedy is inevitable. It ends with a hero’s funeral, but there’s a ritual for that, too. Meanwhile, the exploits are harrowing and never dull—endangered infants tied and locked in a closet by crack dealers, two kids trapped in a burning building, heads severed by vengeful thugs and dialogue so filthy it turns the air blue. There’s a pattern to the violence and a feeling of creepy authenticity as End of Watch keeps tabs on the ironic, irrevocable mix of danger and boredom in a cop’s day-to-day routine driving a squad car in a battle zone. But there’s nothing in it we haven’t seen in better, hard-assed cop movies like Woody Harrelson’s Rampart and the partnership of veteran renegade Denzel Washington and rookie Ethan Hawke in the gritty Training Day. This is probably as it should be, since the movie marks the directorial debut of David Ayer, who wrote Training Day. The brutality is intense, but it’s ugly to look at, seen in dizzy hand-held camera angles and close-ups of profiles shot through windows and windshields with camera lenses mounted on car hoods. There isn’t much trajectory or plot, and despite the obvious thrills, End of Watch doesn’t stretch far. The acting is first-rate, but is there any reason why Jake Gyllenhaal has to be bald?