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Sometime, you just get lucky. Saturday, September 18—the penultimate day of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival—became that day for me. Let me explain…
Over the first week of the festival, word of mouth began to spread on which movies were the favorites, and one name kept popping up over and over again: The King’s Speech. Starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech is about that friendship between King George VI and his speech therapist. In the weeks leading up to the festival, as I was looking over all of the descriptions and trying to decide which films to see, I read that brief plot synopsis, thought it sounded boring as hell, and didn’t put it on my shortlist of films to try and catch. The film only screened twice, both times occurring in the festival’s first few days, so by the time word began to spread about how amazing it was, I had already missed my chance to see it. Or had I?
For my Saturday volunteer shift, I ended up working a private industry screening of The King’s Speech, and I was one of two volunteers stationed inside the theater to help guard against unlawful piracy in the audience. This essentially meant that I could just stand there and watch the whole movie, which I happily did. I also saw two films later that evening, which both sucked, but my day had already been made.
Movie: The King’s Speech
What Is It? In the mid-1930s, King Edward abdicates England’s throne, leaving his stuttering brother, George VI, to become king and lead his nation into war against Germany. With the advent of radio and the looming conflict, it has never been more important for the King to make inspiring speeches to his people, so he hires a speech therapist to help conquer his stammer.
Director: Tom Hooper—Acclaimed for his TV miniseries work, especially USA’s Elizabeth I and HBO’s John Adams, Hooper’s only previous film was last year’s The Damned United.
Notable Cast: Colin Firth stars as George VI, with supporting work by Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, Helena Bonham Carter as his wife, and Guy Pierce as his brother.
The Grade: A
Thoughts: If I were forced to bet right now on what will win Best Picture for 2010, I’d lay all my money on The King’s Speech. It is truly a flawless film. Despite a plot that sounds painfully boring, the film races by briskly and is never less than vividly entertaining. There’s a dry British humor that permeates the proceedings, as well as plenty of four letter words courtesy of a radical treatment method. And the acting… oh, the acting. Colin Firth is all but assured an Academy Award, and Geoffrey Rush could quite possibly win a second (he won Best Actor for 1996’s Shine). The King’s Speech is also a beautifully inspiring story about a man’s determination to overcome his disability in order to better serve his country. The film opens in wide release on Thanksgiving weekend, and I urge everyone to make time for it between trips to the mall. My only complaint was that I had to watch the whole thing standing up.
What Is It? Filmed at a jail in southeast Michigan, a convict up for parole gets his beautiful wife to try and influence his parole officer’s decisions.
Director: John Curran—Most notable for directing 2006’s underwhelming period drama The Painted Veil, which starred Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.
Notable Cast: Edward Norton plays the titular convict, Milla Jovovich (star if the Resident Evil franchise) plays his wife, and Robert DeNiro stars as the retiring parole officer.
Notable Crew: The film was written by Angus MacLachlan, whose previous screenplay was 2005’s wonderful Junebug.
The Grade: D
Thoughts: The only positive thing I can say about Stone is that it’s an ambitious film that tried to be great. But sadly, that’s where the compliments end. Honestly, this movie is just stupid. All three characters fight for who can be most unlikable, and DeNiro’s parole officer is given a prologue set thirty years ago that not only makes us hate him from the get-go, but feels completely superfluous to the film’s narrative. The acting is fairly serviceable, but anyone who’s seen HBO’s The Wire will immediately recognize that Norton is just doing a really good Bubbles impression, and therefore won’t be able to take him seriously. And you know what’s even worse than a movie with a bad plot and bad characters? A movie with a bad plot, bad characters, and no resolution. When the movie ended (or, more accurately, when the credits started running, since I don’t think it’s fair to say the movie had an ending), much of the audience responded with a disappointing “huh?” And unless you’re a former inmate, you won’t see any recognizable Michigan locations to make the movie worth sitting through. Instead of wasting your money on this, just see The King’s Speech twice.
Movie: Passion Play
What Is It? A trumpet player who’s seen better days and now works for the mob encounters a beautiful winged woman at the circus who might just be an angel. But when his mobster boss wants to claim her for his own, the trumpet player is forced into a tough decision.
Director: Mitch Glazer—a three-decade screenwriting veteran (Scrooged, The Recruit), this is Glazer’s directing debut, and he wrote the film as well.
Notable Cast: Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox play the leads, and Bill Murray uses his dry wit to tackle the mob boss.
The Grade: C-
Thoughts: I saw this movie because I’m a fan of both Rourke and Murray, but I found it to be a pretty forgettable experience. It deserves a little leniency because it is Glazer’s first film as a director, and it’s not totally awful, but I certainly don’t recommend it. The plot feels like Glazer took Wim Wenders’ two masterpieces from the 1980s—Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire—stuck them in a blender, and added a jumbo packet of Cheez Whiz. Murray feels out of place and yet still underused, while Megan Fox is at her best when not speaking. The movie does a relatively decent job maintaining interest with brisk pacing, but the ending is so comically bad that I actually wondered if it was supposed to be funny. I laughed quietly and nervously, just to make sure I covered all my bases as a polite audience member.
The 2010 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close on Sunday, September 19, and I managed to catch two more screenings that morning before I had to skip town.
Movie: The Debt
What Is It? Three retired Mossad agents in 1995 have unresolved issues from a thirty year-old case (the one that made their careers) come back to haunt them.
Director: John Madden—Most remembered for directing 1998’s Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love, Madden has mostly kept quite over the ensuing dozen years, only surfacing with a few disappointing movies (Proof, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin).
Notable Cast: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds (Munich, Miami Vice) play the 1995 incarnations of the three agents, while Sam Worthington (Avatar), Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy), and beautiful newcomer Jessica Chastain play their younger counterparts.
Notable Crew: Matthew Vaughn, writer/director of Kick-Ass and Stardust, wrote the screenplay with Jane Goldman (his writing partner) and one other.
The Grade: B+
Thoughts: For most of The Debt’s running time, it doesn’t distinguish itself as much more than a well-done espionage thriller, but about 2/3 of the way through, there’s a twist that dramatically changes the meaning, as well as the film’s resonance. Without giving away too much, The Debt reminded me of the way films like Atonement and The Usual Suspects have devoted huge amounts of screen time to the dramatization of events that turned out to be of questionable veracity. It’s also a film about the way our greatest failures never quite manage to completely vacate our lives, and in this sense, The Debt is a film people should relate to even if they’ve never been secret agents. As you might guess from the cast, this is an extremely well acted film, but Chastain is the real revelation. She has the unenviable task of portraying a woman who will grow up to be Helen Mirren, and Chastain brings the necessary amount of vulnerability, toughness, and regality that are befitting of her older counterpart.
Movie: John Carpenter’s The Ward
What Is It? A beautiful young woman with no memory prior to being found by police at a burned-down house is institutionalized during the 1960s. Once in the asylum, she seemingly becomes the target of a ghost who may be a former patient.
Director: John Carpenter—Arguably the most influential post-Hitchcock horror director, Carpenter created a string of classics in the 70s and 80s that surely ranks as one of the better hot streaks in modern Hollywood history (Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China all came out in an 8-year span). Carpenter also typically handles writing, producing, and soundtrack duties on his films (he wrote the classic Halloween score). Sadly, his idea well mostly dried up in the 90s, and he’s been more or less retired for the last decade or so.
Notable Cast: Amber Heard (Pineapple Express) stars, while Lyndsy Fonseca (the daughter in TV’s How I Met Your Mother) plays one of the other patients.
The Grade: C-
Thoughts: For my final film of TIFF, I had the opportunity to see something of a bit more prestigious flavor, but I hadn’t yet seen any of the Midnight Madness movies, and I wanted to end the whole experience on something fun. So what better than John Carpenter’s long awaited return to the genre that he helped shape? Just about anything, it would turn out. The Ward literally feels like Carpenter went to a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island earlier this year, felt that movie could have just as easily featured a cast of hot chicks, went home and knocked out a screenplay that night, then started shooting a week later. Even at its worst, The Ward is still relatively watchable and entertaining, but it’s undeniably depressing to see a once-great director resort to using genre clichés when he used to be the guy creating them.
And with that anticlimactic note, my great TIFF 2010 experience came to a close. In 11 days, I saw 22 films (though I slept through almost all of one of them), attended one interview and one sneak preview, took part in 7 filmmaker Q & A’s, knocked out nearly 50 hours worth of volunteer work, lost an incalculable amount of sleep, and, at various times, got behind on such luxuries as eating and bathing. By the end of the festival, I was mostly subsisting on Tim Horton’s doughnuts and coffee shop pastries, because my life savings was being so heavily drained on the public transit system. And yet, my first film festival was undoubtedly one of the greatest and most profound experiences of my life, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Really, the only depressing aspect of the week was how many potentially great movies I didn’t get to see. For the record, here are the top ten films that never quite made it off my wish list:
1. Hereafter—New drama about mortality from Clint Eastwood, which should tell you everything you need to know about why I wanted to see it. Starring Matt Damon, this film inexplicably only screened once (most films at TIFF screen three times), which made it one of the most difficult tickets to come by.
2. Biutiful—Starring Javier Bardem and directed by the great Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel), this film won raves at Cannes.
3. Waiting For Superman—Documentary about the failure of the U.S. education system made by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) and funded by Bill Gates.
4. Blue Valentine—The most acclaimed film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this relationship drama stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who are both expected to receive Oscar attention.
5. Another Year—The new film by Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy), several critics have called this his best yet.
6. Of Gods and Men—French drama starring Michael Lonsdale (best known to American audiences as the evil Drax in Moonraker), I talked to a few people who thought this was the single best film at TIFF.
7. Little White Lies—Starring Marion Cotillard, this was the film I had a ticket for, but was forced to trade in for something else when they couldn’t get the subtitles working.
8. The Conspirator—Robert Redford directed film about Lincoln’s assassination, starring Robin Wright and James McAvoy.
9. Barney’s Version—Life reflection dramedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.
10. Machete Maidens Unleashed—A documentary about the huge amount of American B-Movies filmed in the Philippines during the 1970s and the jobs they provided for the indigenous female population. Seriously, just look at that title!
And, lastly, my top ten for the films I did see:
1. The King’s Speech
2. Black Swan
3. 127 Hours
5. The Town
6. Inside Job
7. The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town
8. Janie Jones
9. It’s Kind of a Funny Story
10. Tamara Drewe
Thanks to everyone that read along for taking part in my journey. I’m already excited for TIFF 2011.