Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Monday, Sept. 10

September 11, 2012

I used to brag about the day in 1988 or 1989, when I managed to see six films in one day – a blend of press and public screenings – at the Toronto International Film Festival.

It was a feat of stamina (at a much younger age), but also one of logistics: running from theater to theater, beating traffic and crowds (though it was mostly centralized at theaters in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood).

If not for some connectivity issues at my hotel – which prevented me from posting my report about Sunday’s films before I had to leave for my first screening of the day – I might have matched that on Monday. Instead, I ended the day after five films (still not a bad total), having taken a break mid-afternoon to walk back to my hotel to post my piece. The buzz on the film I meant to see – something called “Arthur Newman” – was not good, but still …

On the other hand, six films in one day is less of a feat these days, given the press screenings’ almost total centralization in the massive Scotiabank multiplex. It becomes less about logistics than stamina, because you walk out of one screening and into line for the next. And people tend to be pretty nice about holding your place so you can hit the refreshment stand or the bathroom while you’re waiting to be let in.

As film-festival days go, this was a good one, with five films that I could recommend to anyone. Well, OK, so I would have to think about who my audience was before sending them off to see Martin McDonagh’s bloody funny “Seven Psychopaths” – and particularly “The Iceman,” a brutally intense film about late 20th-century gangsters by Ariel Vroman that features an award-worthy performance by the constantly fascinating Michael Shannon.

He plays real-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski, an icy individual who also happens to be a family man with a wife and two kids. Working for New Jersey mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) and then for all of the New York families, he has a workmanlike approach to violence that isn’t without a sense of humor. But when he runs afoul of DeMeo and starts to freelance, his life begins to unravel.

The film features an intriguing cast that includes Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Winona Ryder and Chris Evans, as well as a cameo by James Franco. But it’s Shannon – with his laser-like glare, monsterish physicality and lantern jaw – who carries the film on his broad shoulders, creating a lethal individual while finding his humanity. Vroman ratchets the tension, making this a hard-boiled crime tale that never lets up.

Even more compelling is “The Impossible,” a gripping true story of a British family (led by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) on vacation in Thailand at the end of 2004 – when the massive tsunami hits. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”), the film offers a white-knuckle re-creation of the disaster, as seen through the eyes of Watts, as a mother trying to save her oldest son, a pre-teen. The tsunami sequence itself is scarily real, much more so than Clint Eastwood managed in “Hereafter.”

It’s like watching a human being put through a spin cycle – and worse. But the real drama comes in the aftermath, as the badly injured Watts and her son (played by Tom Holland) try to find their way back to civilization – then struggle to find out what has happened to McGregor and the two other sons. It’s a film that pulls you in and wrings you out, both with suspense and emotion, thanks to Bayona’s restrained but firm-handed direction and the performances by McGregor, Watts and young Holland.

I laughed a lot at Martin McDonagh’s gruesomely funny “Seven Psychopaths,” which blends elements of crime fiction, Hollywood backstage life and just plain dark Irish weirdness into one heady (if slightly oversaturated) comic stew. Perhaps not as concise and brash as McDonagh’s “In Bruges,” it’s still a surprising and witty tale, chockfull of terrific performances large and small.

The small ones include Michael Stuhlbarg, Olga Kurylenko, Gabourey Sidibe and Michael Pitt. The large ones are offered by Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson. They each take a strand in a multi-faceted story of a blocked screenwriter, a pair of dognappers and an angry, homicidal criminal whose dog has been snatched.

McDonagh, a witty and black-humored playwright, gets the most out of everyone in a sprawling shaggy dog tale that touches upon serial killers, Quakers and the conventions of the Hollywood thriller. The film itself is deftly unconventional, right down to its witty finale. And Walken, a national treasure, gets a big laugh just with his offbeat reading of the word “No.”

I also enjoyed “Writers,” with Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly and a group of smart young actors including Logan Lerman, Lily Collins, Nat Wolff and Liana Liberato. The first film by newcomer Josh Boone, it’s a story about a year in the life of a family of divorce, where the father is a famous writer (Kinnear), with kids (Collins and Wolff) who aspire to be writers as well, while dealing with the split of their father from their mother (Connelly).

It’s an intelligent film about ideas and emotions, about the strength and weakness of family bonds and the nature of the creative urge. Collins and Lerman are particularly good, as a girl who believes she’s too smart for love and the classmate who changes her mind. Kinnear has vulnerability, restraint and impeccable timing as the guy who is convinced his ex-wife will come back to him.

My final film of the day was “Bad 25,” Spike Lee’s documentary about Michael Jackson’s “Bad” album: its creation and the hype surrounding its release. It offers interesting behind-the-scenes footage of Martin Scorsese filming the “Bad” video, as well as archival interviews with Jackson, Quincy Jones and current interviews with everyone from Mariah Carey to Ruben Blades.

Still, it’s a curious choice for Lee. The story of “Thriller,” the largest selling album of all time, would seem the logical subject that’s ripe for telling; as successful as “Bad” was, it was not nearly the phenomenon that Lee depicts it as. And, given the stories of Jackson’s later life, which have yet to be addressed in a serious documentary or book, this seems like a bit of (pardon the expression) whitewash, meant to burnish Jackson’s posthumous image and bury the unflattering parts.

Tuesday will start for me with memories of where I was 11 years ago on this day: right here in Toronto, walking out of a morning screening to find the world had changed while I was watching a movie. Then it’s off to the nearly three-hour “Cloud Atlas” and probably four more films. Stay tuned.

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