It’s always nice to see old pros given the opportunity to ply their trade in new and revealing ways. Consider a pair of Christophers in films at the Toronto Film Festival.
Christopher Plummer is sublime as the title character in “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” the star-crossed film by Terry Gilliam that is most notable for the death of Heath Ledger during shooting and the scramble by Gilliam to figure out a way to finish the movie without him. As the good doctor, Plummer is limber and versatile, playing drama and physical comedy, bringing to bear the best that his mellifluous voice has to offer.
That voice seems to be ever present this year, at least in the animated realm. He was the villain in “Up,” the domineering No. 1 in “9” and he’ll also be heard here in Toronto in “My Dog Tulip.”
Plummer most often plays silky villains these days, so getting the chance to play a hero gives him a role that makes much broader demands on his talents – and he delivers. His performance almost makes the Gilliam film worth seeing – that and the clever manner in which Gilliam created his own rules of fantasy to explain why Ledger transforms at various points into Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Unfortunately, Gilliam’s astonishing visual sense can’t compensate for a movie that’s too short on script and story to pull itself together in the end.
Just as Plummer is the best thing about Gilliam’s film, Christopher Lee salvages Danis Tanovic’s “Triage,” a film that proves once more that Colin Farrell is an underrated actor with hit-and-miss taste in scripts. For every “In Bruges” and “The New World,” he seems to make a half-dozen duds like “Cassandra’s Crossing” and “Miami Vice.”
Farrell is outstanding in “Triage,” a film about the traumatic effects of war on a veteran news photographer. But while he makes us feel this guy’s pain, the story itself is clichéd stuff – right down to the iconoclastic shrink who helps him face his problem.
But the shrink is played by Christopher Lee, with a playful Spanish accent (his character is the grandfather of Farrell’s character’s wife, who is played by Paz Vega). The grandfather is an 84-year-old a psychiatrist who treated the problems of fascists after Franco fell and who treats Farrell when he develops a psychosomatic inability to walk. Lee’s eyes twinkle with mischief, even as he calls Farrell on the phony defenses he hides behind to keep from confronting his real secret (which you’ll figure out long before Tanovic reveals it). It’s great to see Lee play someone without supernatural powers for a change; he makes this guy the most interesting character in an otherwise predictable film.
Speaking of performances that bowl you over – I wasn’t, but let’s – there are a pair of them in Lee Daniel’s shattering “Precious” (which actually is burdened with the unwieldy title “Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire”). Indeed, other than that title, there’s not a misstep in the whole thing; while “Up in the Air” is still my favorite film of the festival so far, I can’t imagine another movie that will pack the kind of power that “Precious” does.
It starts, of course, with Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, a heart-breakingly expressive young actress playing the title character: an obese, abused 16-year-old in 1987 Harlem. Kicked out of the junior high school where she’s stuck, she’s barely literate – and pregnant with her second child by her own father. The film is about her wrenching journey toward a normal life – and Sidibe gives a performance of startling depth and subtlety.
She’s matched by Mo’Nique, who plays the mother from hell – and who has a scene at the close of the film that is jaw-dropping in its emotional intensity. And I can’t move on without mentioning Mariah Carey – yes, that Mariah Carey – who plays a tough, tenacious social worker (and who I didn’t recognize until a colleague told me it was her after the film). It’s almost enough to make you forget “Glitter.”
“Precious” could be this year’s “Wrestler” – an independent film of such strength that it captures the imagination of the public beyond the arthouse to cross over to mainstream success. It’s quite an accomplishment for Daniels, considering that it’s only his second film.
My Saturday included a chance to interview director Grant Heslov of “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” Steven Soderbergh about “The Informant!” and Diablo Cody about “Jennifer’s Body.” I’ll post the Soderbergh and Cody interviews later this week before their films open (along with reviews of the films) and the Heslov interview in November when that film hits screens.
So let me conclude with a film I quite enjoyed, even if it seemed both derivative and predictable. Like Christophers Plummer and Lee, Michael Caine just gets better with age and he makes Daniel Barber’s “Harry Brown” much more emotionally compelling than it has any right to be.
This film could easily be called “Dirty Harry Brown” – or perhaps “Gran Torino – London Edition.” Caine plays the title character, a pensioner whose wife has just died. He’s an ex-Marine (there are hints that he was part of England’s occupying force in Northern Ireland, at a time when everyone was still playing rough) who doesn’t like the way a group of hoodlums have taken over the housing project where he lives.
He takes matters into his own hands after his best friend, another elderly gent played by David Bradley, is murdered by the self-same thugs. The police seem helpless to do anything – but when Harry fends off an attack by one of the kids (and winds up accidentally stabbing him with his own knife), it triggers something and he becomes a kind of senior avenging angel.
Barber’s film is streamlined and hard-edged, though it does build to a hard-to-swallow riot that serves as backdrop to the final showdown. It’s hardly original – but it does feature a deliciously unexpected turn by Caine.
Sunday will start with a press screening of Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying” – honestly. And there’s plenty more to come.