Live from Toronto Film Festival 2011: 9/12/11

September 13, 2011


A few thoughts about the Toronto Film Festival in general before I dive into my thoughts about the four films I saw today:

First of all, the phones: Maybe it’s just that the auditoriums where the press screenings occur in the Scotiabank multiplex are so huge – 500-600 seats, which means that there is that much more room for assholes. But the number of people in press/industry screenings who feel no compunction about checking their phones during a movie seems to be on the increase. And not just checking: They’re reading emails, answering emails, texting – playing Angry Birds, for all I know. I regularly play the grumpy guy who asks someone sitting next to me or in front of me to please turn the damn phone off. But when the room is so vast, it’s hard not to be distracted by people three, four, even 10 rows away because those bright little screens are so obvious. Assholes: I said it and I meant it. I’ve thought about throwing pennies at them but worry I might hit an innocent party.

Secondly – as always – the pre-screening trailers: I’ve counted as many as 10 before each film. There’s the one for the TIFF Bell Lightbox; one for a Bell fiber-optic cable system; one for the festival itself; one thanking the volunteers; one for Blackberry’s non-smartphone technology; one for Cadillac; one for the Christie digital projection system; one for Dolby; one (occasionally) for AMC; and one for an upcoming TIFF exhibit of Grace Kelly memorabilia (“Discover her jewelry!”). I was sick of them by the second movie.

On my second day in Toronto, I saw four films – but it wasn’t until the very last one that, for the first time in this festival, I finally saw a movie that made the juices really flow. It doesn’t happen often but I always look forward to that moment: when I see a movie that really jazzes me, wakes me up and makes me want to see it again.

Not that I haven’t seen films I’ve liked and/or enjoyed so far. Indeed, I feel lucky that, in the first two days (and among the half-dozen I saw before I got up here), I’ve only seen one out-and-out stinker (“Machine Gun Preacher”).

But it wasn’t until my last film of the day that I saw a movie that made my hair stand up on my arms: Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote.” This Israeli comedy-drama is like a jolt of emotional electricity: subtle, wild, painful and incredibly suspenseful.

Those are a lot of exciting adjectives for what Cedar, who introduced the public screening I saw, described tongue-in-cheek as “the best film ever made about Talmudic philologists at Hebrew University.” And really, that’s true: It amounts to a story of academic rivalry and family tension among Talmudic scholars in Jerusalem.

Cedar’s film seems to be about a bitter, aged scholar, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), who has devoted his life to researching an exceptionally narrow bit of the Talmud – literally, his whole career. But he’s an uncompromising, almost antisocial type, who has made so many enemies that he’s been passed over for two decades for a national award that should have been his.

The same kind of awards that have eluded him have come easily to his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), also a Talmudic scholar but one who knows how to play the game. Things seem to look up for the father when he finally is notified that, in fact, he will be the recipient of the award that has so long escaped his grasp. But that’s just the start of the problems between father, son and everyone else involved.

Cedar’s writing is darkly funny and incredibly astute in its depiction of the friction between fathers and sons. There is a secret at the center of the film – and the facts of who knows what about which leads to a climax that is absolutely thrilling. The actors are exceptional and the film is a killer, from start to finish. If this isn’t this year’s Oscar winner as best foreign language film, there is no justice.

I also liked Lasse Hallstrom’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” a film that teams Ewan McGregor (as a fussy governmental fish expert) with Emily Blunt (as the representative of a sheik with a wild scheme involving just what the title says). The chemistry between McGregor and Blunt positively crackles, and Kristin Scott Thomas turns up in a delicious supporting part as a fast-talking press rep for the prime minister. It’s the best film Hallstrom has directed in ages and bound to be an audience-pleaser.

Audiences may have to adjust to the wavelength of Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister,” but if they do, they’ll find an enjoyably offbeat romantic comedy that manages to feel improvised and written at the same time. It casts Mark Duplass as Jack, who is best friends with Iris (Emily Blunt again), an ex-girlfriend of his late brother. He’s been in a spiral in the year since his brother’s death, so she offers to let him stay at her father’s cabin on an island off Seattle, to get his head together. But he arrives to find that he’s not alone; in fact, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), Iris’ half-sister, is already there, recovering from a breakup with her longtime girlfriend. The various permutations of sex and love between the three create a certain amount of comic havoc, which Shelton transforms, movingly, into a serious and lovely bit of romance. It’s a more accomplished film than “Humpday,” which was pretty damn funny itself.

The less said about “Machine Gun Preacher,” the better. I’ll review it when it opens Sept. 23. But the big question is: Why would a director like Marc Forster (“Quantum of Solace,” “Stranger Than Fiction”) make a cliché-riddled action movie like this? And what is this dreadful film – in which Gerard Butler plays a real-life character, an ex-junkie-biker who becomes a gun-toting savior for children in Sudan – doing at a film festival? Any film festival?

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