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

September 12, 2013

bad words

Movies can amaze with their ability to not just take you out of yourself but to put in the middle of worlds you otherwise would never get a chance to see or experience. For me on Wednesday at the Toronto Film Festival, that meant traveling everywhere from 18th-century England to the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere to a small New England town in the late 1980s.

If film festivals are about discovering movies – such as Jason Bateman’s hilarious “Bad Words” – they can also be about catching up with the buzz, as I did with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” the one set in outer space. Cuaron’s gripping film had the bloggers humming at Telluride and Venice before playing Toronto this week. It had already had two press screenings up here when I saw it on Wednesday – and that screening, in a theater that seated 500-plus, was almost full.

And for good reason: “Gravity” may be the year’s most harrowing film, a stunning visual tour de force that will have you gripping your armrest, holding your breath and all those other things that a really tense movie can make you do.

It’s amazing to contemplate the fact that 99 percent of this film was shot on a soundstage somewhere, because Cuaron makes you believe you are hurtling through the void with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. They play two crew members of a space shuttle, concluding work on the Hubble telescope, when the worst occurs.

A missile strike on a Soviet satellite has created debris, which results in a cascading event: That debris destroys other satellites, creating a debris field hurtling toward the space shuttle at 20,000 miles per hour. When it hits, Clooney and Bullock – both in their spacesuits – wind up as the only survivors, with the shuttle itself destroyed and their oxygen on the wane. Their only hope: to float to the International Space Station, where there is air and a possible escape pod.

And that’s it: two tiny people floating through a gravity-free environment where there seems to be no up or down while their air is dwindling. It’s as basic as story-telling gets – and as compelling, thanks to gripping performances by Bullock and Clooney and the visual wizardry of a team of computer artists. Even the 3D seems to work well (which is the nicest thing I’m willing to say about it).

Bateman’s “Bad Words” had caused a stir when it was sold for several millions earlier in the festival – which means that, at some point, you’ll get to see this wildly inappropriate comedy. Bateman directed and stars, as Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old man who exploits a loophole in the rules to enter the national spelling bee of under-12-year-olds, with the specific goal of winning it. All the parents of the word-crazy contestants hate him – but he doesn’t care because he only wants one thing.

Or he does until he meets a young competitor named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), whose irrepressible good cheer and eagerness for an adult friend cracks Guy’s hard shell. Bateman spews vicious one-liners, knocking them out of the park for big, big laughs, while using everyone from the invaluable Kathryn Hahn to Allison Janney to Philip Baker Hall as his foils. It is an assured – and wickedly funny – directorial debut.

belle

I also liked “Belle,” Amma Asante’s moving film (based on a true story) about a mixed-race young noblewoman in late 18th-century England. The daughter of a titled naval officer and a former slave, she is raised by her aunt and uncle (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) to be a young lady, though not one who can come to dinner in polite society.

Her sense of herself is shaken by a legal case being considered by that uncle, the top jurist in England. The case involves a slave ship whose crew threw the slaves overboard to save themselves when the ship ran low on water. Now the shipping company is asking its insurers for recompense for its lost profits. The real case, about a slave ship called the Zong, added fuel to the fire of abolitionists, who helped abolish the slave trade in England in 1807 (doing it legislatively, rather than being forced to fight a war to establish that slavery was a crime against humanity).

Asante’s film is low-key but dramatic, beautifully rendered while establishing the lines between classes and the Jane Austen-like preoccupation with finding a husband of sufficient means and title. She also has the luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role, going up against old pros like Wilkinson, Watson and Penelope Wilton. Sam Reid, who plays the young woman’s true love interest, is a find, steadfast and handsome but also with a sensitivity that is appealing.

The day’s most challenging film – in terms of tone – is also a huge leap forward for its writer-director Jason Reitman. Having cut his teeth on comedies with sharp edges (“Thanks for Smoking,” “Up in the Air,” “Young Adult”), Reitman tries something different here, adapting Joyce Maynard’s darker, more dramatic tale of a weekend of captivity.

The captives, however, seem to be willing ones: young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his depressed mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). They are approached by an injured man named Frank (Josh Brolin) in a store; he asks for a ride and winds up going home with them. There, they discover that, in fact, he is an escaped convict. But he promises them no harm if they just let him rest until he can make a run for a nearby railyard.

Instead, he becomes involved in their lives, creating a kind of instant family, a bond that Henry hasn’t felt since his father walked out on them years earlier. Within a day or so, Frank has become a surrogate father to Henry and husband to Adele – though, obviously, things cannot end well here (particularly given a foreshadowing reference to “Bonnie & Clyde”).

“Labor Day” has the feeling of a fable, the kind of story that requires a leap of faith to buy into. But once you do, you’ll be swept up in an emotional tale built around touching performances by Winslet, Brolin and young Griffith. It’s a quiet, thoughtful film, one that defies easy categorization, which may confuse some people. But stick with it: This movie shows just how much Reitman has grown as a filmmaker and what strong and resourceful actors Brolin and Winslet can be.

So that’s 20 movies in four days. I’m going to see two more on Thursday before I head back to New York. I’ll talk about them and the festival as a whole on Friday.

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