Live from the Toronto International Film Festival: Tuesday, Sept. 10

September 11, 2013

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The Toronto Film Festival is where I first saw the films of the Coen brothers, Michael Moore, Quentin Tarantino and numerous others.

I haven’t made that kind of discovery at the 2013 edition, at least not so far. But Tuesday I did see a couple of the most enjoyable films I’ve found at this year’s festival: Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” and John Butler’s “The Stag.”

Actually, it’s Butler’s writing partner (and star) Peter McDonald I’m more interested in. McDonald wrote what should be a formula comedy and found all sorts of new energy and twists – and then injected them himself with his performance as a madman known simply as The Machine. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for that brash Irish charm.

“The Stag” revolves around the impending marriage of a metrosexual named Fionan (Hugh O’Conor), whose best friend Davin (Andrew Scott) proposes to throw him a stag weekend with their pals in the Irish countryside. A couple of hitches: None of the crew involved is remotely outdoorsy, though the weekend entails hiking and camping – and Davin and Fionan are forced to invite Fionan’s soon-to-be brother-in-law, The Machine.

Though they make their best effort to avoid the latter, The Machine is a force of nature, who not only finds them after they leave him behind but immediately takes over the weekend in ways none of them could have imagined (including setting their tent afire while they’re all in it). By the time it’s over, they’ve all learned things about what they are and aren’t capable of – and made the audience howl with laughter in the bargain.

Is it a great movie? Not really; visually, it looks like a TV show most of the time. Yet the dialogue crackles and the comic action escalates in unexpected ways that will surprise you into escalating guffaws, assuming it finds its way to American screens. It should.

With “Enough Said,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, one of TV’s funniest women ever, has finally been given a perfect film vehicle. Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a masseuse whose daughter is a few months away from leaving for college. At a party, she meets Albert (the late James Gandolfini) and the two of them – both divorced and painfully single – click in ways neither of them expect.

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But there’s a problem: Eva has made a new friend, a massage client named Marianne (Catherine Keener) who is a poet. Eva listens to Marianne spout off about her ex-husband – until she realizes that Marianne was married to Albert. Suddenly she’s seeing Albert in a new (and unflattering) light, one that threatens to undermine what they’re building.

Holofcener is a smart, incisive writer about human foibles and weakness of mind when it comes to love and romance. She makes loneliness poignantly funny and finds comedy in the most painful sort of self-sabotage, even as she explores the way we keep ourselves from being happy. She’s built a tasty little oeuvre, a list of films that are exceptional character-study comedies built around superb casts.

This film is no exception, beginning with Louis-Dreyfus (who is funny and vulnerable) and continuing to Gandolfini, in a role that is witty and sensitive. It shows just how much range he truly had, range he had yet to get a chance to explore prior to his untimely death this year. Watching him in this film, you realize that he rarely had the opportunity to just plain smile in too much of his work – and how engaging he can be when he does,

My day began with “The Fifth Estate,” a serviceable drama about Julian Assange and Wikileaks that stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the aloof, self-aggrandizing Assange and Daniel Bruhl as Assange’s more conscientious collaborator, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Director Bill Condon finds analog ways to visualize the digital world that Assange means to take over, but can’t get past the pitfalls of this kind of formula biopic. Indeed, if the subject interests you, you’d be better served tracking down Alex Gibney’s documentary, “The Wikileaks Story: We Steal Secrets,” from earlier this year. It is more dramatically compelling than this dramatization.

I also saw “Prisoners,” about the disappearance of two little girls and what it does to all concerned. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a hard-driving detective trying to find the missing daughters of Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard and their wives. Jackman is the vengeful father, driven mad by his inability to do anything about his daughter’s disappearance – to the point that he kidnaps and tortures the one suspect the police caught and released.

Director Denis Villeneuve, who also has the film “Enemy” at the festival, labors to maintain tension but the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time works against him. Despite intense performances and a real sense of creepiness that recalls David Fincher’s much better “Zodiac” too closely, this film crawls when it should be barreling at full-speed.

On the other hand, Charlie Stratton’s “Therese,” a new version of Zola’s “Therese Raquin,” does wonders with unspoken feelings. Elizabeth Olsen, as the young woman in a loveless marriage, makes us believe that she could commit – or at least sanction – the murder of her husband by his best friend (who happens to be her lover).

Oscar Isaac, soon to be seen in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is the lover, and he and Olsen have strong chemistry, both when they are drawn to each other and when they later let their guilt rot those feelings from the inside out. Jessica Lange is outstanding as the husband’s domineering mother, who ends ups as the film’s scariest presence. Shot beautifully in the low light of what are meant to be the back alleys of 19th-century Paris commerce, “Therese” is a strong rendering of a classic twisted tale.

That’s 16 movies in three days. And I was actually in bed before midnight Tuesday. Hooray.

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