Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Friday, Sept. 11

September 12, 2009

I almost never go to parties at film festivals. Too often they’re just giant clusterf**ks in which everybody and his brother is there for a free drink and a shot at hors d’oeuvres that usually amount to little more than pizza rolls and chicken wings. I’d rather spend the time watching a movie – or I need to be writing something.


But I annually make an exception for the Sony Pictures Classics dinner at Toronto, always a classy, intimate event at which the guest list is limited – and always includes the stars of Sony’s inevitably quality line-up of films at the festival.


Friday night, the guest list included cast, directors and producers of “Broken Embraces,” “The Damned United,” “An Education,” “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” and a couple of other SPC entries whose titles elude me at the moment. I was seated at a table with Lluis Homar, who costars in “Broken Embraces” with Penelope Cruz (who made a brief appearance at the event before dashing to catch a plane). Homar, who plays Cruz’s lover in the film, was the envy of all the men at the table for sharing a couple of passionate scenes with her.


It was a delicious (if slowly served) meal and the perfect end to a day that included what may become the movie of the festival – and the film that could soon be the buzz of the fall season, though it doesn’t open until Nov. 13: Jason Reitman’s funny, moving “Up in the Air.”


Indeed, this film could easily put a second Oscar on George Clooney’s mantle. He plays a corporate terminator – no, not a hit man but a guy whose company is hired to handle large-scale lay-offs for companies without the balls to do the firing themselves. It’s the best performance of Clooney’s career, one that eclipes even his amazing work in “Michael Clayton” and “Syriana,” playing a guy who spends all of his time on airplanes and who dreams of reaching the 10-million-mile mark for frequent flyers, which would make him part of a group more exclusive than the number of men who walked on the moon.


Directed by Jason Reitman, “Up in the Air” puts Reitman at three for three, in terms of movies that manage to be both smart and wickedly witty (“Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” are the previous two.) “Up in the Air” suddenly leaps to the head of the Oscar pack for the fall season, a rueful comedy that taps directly into the national zeitgeist.




Almost as good in yesterday’s line-up: “A Serious Man,” the Coen brothers’ wonderfully weird comedy about Jewish life in the suburbs of Minneapolis in the summer of love, 1967 (where the Haight-Ashbury scene seems unimaginable). The film – about a beleaguered college professor coping with an unfaithful wife, his struggle to be granted tenure and his son’s approaching bar mitzvah – is at once so not the Coens and so totally the Coens that you can get brain whiplash just thinking about it.


As they did with their first film, “Blood Simple,” which I saw during my first visit to Toronto many years ago, the Coens work with a cast of relative unknowns. The most familiar faces on the screen belong to Adam Arkin (as a lawyer), Richard Kind (as a crazed uncle) and Fyvush Finkel (as someone who may or may not be an evil spirit called a dybbuk). The film belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg, a New York stage actor who looks like and vocally resembles a middle-aged Elijah Wood.


He plays Larry Gopnik, a physics professor whose world suddenly turns into its own version of chaos theory come to life over the course of a few weeks. The Coens – ever the merry pranksters juggling with the forces of fate – create a story that seems ultimately to say that no matter what obstacles you  overcome, there’s always something else to worry about. (One slight anachronism: There’s a very funny bit in the film involving the Columbia Record Club and Santana’s album, “Abraxas” – which wasn’t released until 1970. Indeed, the band’s first album wasn’t released until 1969, shortly after they tore it up at Woodstock.)


In terms of pure atmospherics, it’s hard to beat the first half-hour or so of Joe Dante’s “The Hole” – but the rest of it never quite lives up to the set-up. An old-fashioned horror-thriller about kids who open a padlocked trapdoor in the basement of their new home – with scarifying results – the film eventually loses its way when it tries to explain just exactly what has been unleashed.


The film is also in 3D, though I couldn’t tell you why. Here’s a movie that once again proves my theory that 3D is an unnecessary gimmick, one that neither makes nor breaks this movie – but which does add the viewing element of those annoying glasses.


I ended the day with Don Roos’ “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” an emotionally challenging story about the tug-of-war of blended families among the well-to-do on New York’s Upper East and West Sides. It’s a movie I’m still processing, one that deals with heavy-duty emotional pain having to do with divorce, remarriage, infidelity and the death of a baby. It’s hard to say how this one will be received – but if it’s a hit, it will be because people connect to Natalie Portman’s daring performance as an understandably abrasive second wife, the first one where I truly believed her as an adult, a woman, as opposed to a prodigious post-adolescent.


Meanwhile, I had to stop and think on Friday about the fact that, like many of my colleagues, I was part of an American contingent trapped in Toronto eight years ago after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I went into a screening of a movie called “Lantana” that morning – and I came out to discover that the World Trade Center was gone. And that’s my 9/11 memory: frantic phone calls to ascertain my family was safe, followed by a day of numbly watching the TV footage over and over again and talking to friends around the U.S., who called to see if I was in New York.


There’s rain in the forecast for Toronto Saturday; sounds like a good day to go to the movies. More tomorrow.




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