Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Tuesday, September 15

September 16, 2015

fang

There were probably those who thought that “Bad Words,” Jason Bateman’s outrageously funny directing debut, was a one-off: just an actor stretching his wings or perhaps exercising his ego. But that film was too self-assured and wickedly witty to be an exercise in self-glorification.

As Bateman’s new film, “The Family Fang,” shows, Bateman is a filmmaker with an edge and a vision. It was one of the better films I saw during a four-movie day Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Bateman and Nicole Kidman play Ann and Baxter Fang, who were known as Child A and Child B when they were younger and drafted to be part of their parents’ performance art pieces. Their parents, Caleb and Camille (played by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett as senior citizens, Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn as their younger selves), have disappeared and may have been murdered, and the siblings are convinced that the entire thing is yet another piece of performance art.

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, the script starts funny and gets dark in a hurry, without ever losing its absurdly comic refrain. It is a story about the struggle between parents and children, between husband and wife, between art and reality. That’s a heady mix that leaves you thinking and even conflicted, thanks to the layers that each of these actors – particularly Bateman and Kidman – bring to these characters.

I also liked “The Meddler,” a comedy-drama by Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”), which gives Susan Sarandon one of her best roles in years. She plays widow Marnie Minervini, who has abandoned New Jersey for L.A. after the death of her husband, so she can be closer to her daughter. But her daughter (Rose Byrne) is a mess: a TV writer, she’s behind on a deadline for a script because she’s lost her mind slightly after a breakup with an actor (Josh Ritter).

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Marnie is a Brooklyn-born buttinsky who mostly wants someone to take care of. When her daughter puts her off (and eventually leaves to shoot the TV pilot she’s written), Marnie assembles her own collection of unlikely newfound friends on whom to shower the attention her daughter rejects. Yet she runs from any man who tries to break through her chipper, chatty façade. With a cast that includes a marvelously warm J.K. Simmons and a lot famous faces in smaller roles (including Harry Hamlin and Laura San Giacomo), it’s funny and touching – and will make you want to reach out to your own mom.

By its nature, “Colonia” insists on being compelling. Yet this film, by Florian Gallenberger, feels formulaic and even a little sadistic, in retelling a true story.

Daniel Bruhl and Emma Watson play Daniel and Lena, young lovers who reconnect in Santiago, Chile. Unfortunately for them, it’s 1973; she’s a stewardess but he’s a student who’s become active in trying to support the struggling government of the democratically elected Salvador Allende – just before the U.S. and the CIA help topple him for the murderous regime of Augusto Pinochet. The two lovers get caught up in a sweep of Pinochet’s victims – and Daniel is taken away.

She goes looking for him and discovers that he’s been taken to the Colonia Dignidad, a cult-like compound out in the country where a religious nut (Michael Nyqvist) runs roughshod over his flock. He also lends his facilities to Pinochet’s torturers, who worked over Daniel there. Lena joins the cult, as a way to try to find Daniel. The ending is pure “Argo,” and what comes before is both brutal and predictable, with the actors jumping through emotional hoops that bludgeon, rather than touch, the audience.

I had to force myself to sit through all of “Into the Forest,” about two post-adolescent sisters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) forced to fend for themselves in their parents’ isolated house after a power outage that sweeps the region and seems permanent. Directed by Patricia Rozema, it is alternately a tedious meditation on figuring out how to survive without electricity and a ham-handed melodrama with moments of violence meant to disturb. Mostly it feels like an overlong acting exercise for the two actresses and, occasionally, like an extended dare gone wrong.

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