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

September 12, 2012

“The weak are meat and the strong shall eat.”

So declares Tom Hanks in one of several roles he plays in “Cloud Atlas,” the monumental new film from Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana. He’s one of a handful of actors who play a variety of roles in the half-dozen plotlines that span time from the mid-19th century to the far future in this adaptation of David Mitchell’s mind-bending novel.

You can have “The Master” – give me something as multi-layered and chewy as “Cloud Atlas” any day. As the stories break in on each other, the trio of directors create a variety of resonances that echo forward and backward in time, finding themes of questioning authority, seeking personal freedom and the constant struggle to outlive the kind of greedy human errors we seem to make over and over throughout history.

It is bound to be as controversial as “The Master” – but is more accessible and more involving. Hanks, along with Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant and a handful of other actors, bring each of these stories to vigorous life. The directors put the various pieces of the puzzle into play, then bring it all home in the final hour of the film’s 165-minute running time.

Is it challenging? Absolutely. And yet it pays off emotionally and intellectually in ways that few movies with this much ambition ever do. It’s easy to mock the feelings it evokes, but that’s a shallow reading of a much deeper film. “Cloud Atlas” is one of the best films I’ve seen this year and one of the most satisfying.

Seeing it first on Tuesday at the Toronto Film Festival – the first of five films I saw during the day – set the bar rather high and none of the other films I saw approached its ambition. The only one that came close was also the one that resembled it least: “What Maisie Knew,” directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. A modernized version of the Henry James novel, it offers a look at divorce from the viewpoint of 5-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile), whose rock-star mother (Julianne Moore) and art-dealer father (Steve Coogan) grow increasingly hostile until they split. But the directors always focus on the little girl, keeping the marital battles out of sight (but not earshot) of the camera, showing instead the parts that young Maisie is exposed to.

Each parent ends up marrying someone new and Maisie becomes the object of what starts as a power struggle for her affections – until it becomes obvious that these two people are too self-involved to actually be parents. Eventually, Maisie winds up as the ward of her new stepmother (Joanna Vanderham) and stepfather (Alexander Skarsgard), neither of whom expected to become sole caregiver when they got married. Through it all, young Aprile gives a performance that is at once watchful and cautious – a little girl who has developed premature armor in her attempt to make sense of her world and still experience it as a child. It’s a heart-breaking film of great daring, because the filmmakers are so indirect in their story-telling.

I liked “A Late Quartet,” though not without caveats. The story deals with a professional string quartet – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken and Mark Ivanir – celebrating its 25th anniversary. But its future seems in doubt when one member’s announced retirement sends a ripple through the other members’ lives that disrupts their harmony. Walken, always terrific, brings great depth and sadness to his character, while Keener and Hoffman – as a married couple who have reached a tipping point – also capture the tension that is both spoken and unspoken in this marriage.

Still, the film occasionally approaches melodrama when it focuses on Ivanir, the first violin, a teacher who becomes involved with one of his students. That romance seems simplistic, compared to the complex humanity of the other characters. But it doesn’t undermine the film’s ultimate pay-off.

I felt as though I’d seen “Wasteland” before – and didn’t want to see it again. A British crime tale of a group of young hustlers who decide to rob the local drug kingpin, it seemed like a gloss on everything from the Guy Ritchie gangster films to something like “Harry Brown,” with its downbeat look at life in the underbelly.

I kept waiting for something funny to happen in “Imogene,” an alleged comedy in which Kristen Wiig plays a struggling playwright who fakes a suicide attempt when her boyfriend breaks up with her. Instead of winning him back, she winds up remanded to the care of her bizarrely inattentive mother (Annette Bening) near Atlantic City. Wiig can’t elevate the weak script by Michelle Morgan to the point of generating actual laughs. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder what the Toronto programmers were thinking when they picked it.

One day – actually a half-day – left before I head back to New York, after three and a half days and 16 movies. I’ll wrap up my Toronto coverage tomorrow.

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