Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Sunday, Sept. 8

September 9, 2013

The Last Of Robin Hood

It was an unfortunate case of quantity over quality during my first day at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

While I saw six films, there were only a couple I could heartily recommend.

I pulled out of my house in the northern suburbs of New York at 4:15 Sunday morning and, by 9:05 a.m., I was in Toronto, in a seat for a 9:15 screening of “The Last of Robin Hood,” which was one of the few films during the day that I enjoyed.

Not that it’s a great film – but it’s an entertaining one, in a pervy kind of way. It features the absolutely brilliant idea of casting Kevin Kline as the late Errol Flynn, captured in the final two years of his life, when he fell madly in love with a would-be starlet named Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning).

Just one problem: The first time Flynn bedded her, Beverly was all of 15. As the story unfolds, Flynn ostensibly has the approval of Beverly’s star-struck mother, Flo (Susan Sarandon). She turns a blind eye to Flynn’s real intentions, though Flo’s husband screams at her, “Errol Flynn? Errol Flynn is a walking penis!”

Flo Aadland eventually sold a tell-all book about her daughter and Flynn, which serves as part of the framing device of this film. Though it’s got the Lifetime Film label on it, this film is a cut far above the usual Lifetime fare, thanks to the Oscar-winning Kline, who captures Flynn’s pathos and intelligence, as well as his anti-authority streak. Sarandon, another Oscar recipient, perfectly embodies the perpetual small-timer who thinks she’s struck it lucky. Fanning is just as good, convincingly keeping Flynn at arm’s length and teasing him with an affect that is alternately girlish and steely.

I also enjoyed John Turturro’s “Fading Gigolo,” an unlikely romantic comedy with an emphasis on the romance. Turturro plays Fioravante, an aging jack-of-all-trades currently working in a flower shop making arrangements. His oldest friend, Murray (a very witty Woody Allen), comes to him with a proposition: Murray’s dermatologist has admitted to Murray that she’s always wanted to try a ménage a trois – and Murray has offered Fioravante’s services, at a price.

That sounds like the set-up for one of Allen’s screwball comedies; the idea of the male hooker servicing lonely females was also at the center of the HBO sitcom, “Hung.” Instead, Turturro has made a lovely little film about loneliness and connection, one that celebrates sensuality without being particularly explicit about it.

So, while the newly minted stud (whose “ho” name is Virgil) gains in popularity, he’s more interested in the emotional service he provides: of paying attention to women who obviously don’t get enough – or at least the right kind – from the men in their lives.

But he becomes the object of scrutiny of Dovi (Liev Schreiber), a member of the Shomrim (or Hasidic neighborhood watch) in Williamsburg, when he becomes involved with Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a venerated rabbi. Even as “Virgil” is bringing her out of the shell of grieving, he and Murray are stacking the cash from their thriving escort service.

The plot twists are light-hearted (including the idea that the ménage of horny women in search of a man includes both Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara), though the emotions the film focuses on are not. This could have been silly, sexy or crude; instead, Turturro keeps it low-key and sensitive, without ever being cloying, There is the feeling of a fable to it, even as it roams the down-to-earth streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

unknownknown_01

I had the highest hopes and the deepest disappointment with “You Are Here,” the film debut of writer-director Matthew Weiner of “Mad Men” fame. It’s the story of two lifelong pals: Steve (Owen Wilson) and Ben (Zach Galifianakis). Steve is a high-flying TV weatherman in Annapolis; Ben is a pot-growing loner who lives off the grid (and may or may not be bipolar).

But their lives change when Ben’s father dies, leaving most of his wealthy estate to Ben and very little to Ben’s sister (Amy Poehler). It’s up to the perpetually broke Steve to guide Ben, though he can barely handle his own life.

But “You Are Here” seems to go nowhere in particular. It wants to be a serious riff on mental illness, except for, you know, all the jokes. Though Wilson and Galifianakis find ways to ride the wildly varying waves of tone in the film, they can’t overcome the shortcomings of a script that barely seems ready for cable, let alone prime time.

The best film I saw was Oscar-winner Errol Morris’ infuriating documentary, “The Unknown Known.” The title refers to one of the many unfortunately laughable statements made in 2003 by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the war in Iraq quickly started to fall apart, once the Bush administration lied us into it.

What’s amazing is that Morris got Rumsfeld to sit down in front of his camera and answer his questions, just as Robert McNamara did for “The Fog of War.” Rumsfeld, however, is incredibly unrepentant, uncircumspect and unwilling to concede that he might have made mistakes (except for letting George W. Bush talk him out of resigning after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke).

This is a portrait of monumental hubris and pride, untarnished by the onslaught of the truth about what Rumsfeld and his cronies actually perpetrated. Morris gets right in his face – and Rumsfeld just smiles his alligator smile. It is a fascinating and hackles-raising film.

The other two films of my day were “Life of Crime” and “Rush.” “Rush,” Ron Howard’s look at the Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda and their 1976 season of rivalry, is about what you’d expect: competent but uninspiring, full of the kind of easy aphorisms you expect from a mainstream movie about competitive men in high-stakes endeavors.

“The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel,” Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering Hunt observes, to explain his magnetic ability to attract women. For some reason, the hype on this movie has cast the consistently middle-of-the-road Howard as some sort of maverick for “daring” to make a movie about car-racing. The racing is OK but not much more; it is exactly as middlebrow as you’d expect a Ron Howard movie to be. Even screenwriting luminary Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”) can’t work his magic on this material.

Daniel Schechter’s “Life of Crime,” based on Elmore Leonard’s novel, “The Switch,” also felt deflated and flat. It stars Mos Def and John Hawkes as younger versions of the two ne’er-do-wells played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in “Jackie Brown.” For good measure, the cast includes Tim Robbins, Jennifer Aniston and Isla Fisher.

They decide to kidnap Aniston, wife of a wealthy (and shady) businessman but, as it always does in Leonard’s tales, something goes drastically wrong. But like too many Leonard adaptations, this one seems fixated on the crime and punishment and not on the rich vein of dark humor that courses through all of Leonard’s work. Only Hawkes seems to have a hint of how to play to his and Leonard’s strengths; everybody else seems to think they’re in a low-rent genre picture and act hard-boiled without needing to.

It’s late – and the day starts early on Monday. More as it occurs.

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