Live from Toronto Film Festival 2011: 9/13/11

September 14, 2011

My hunch about skipping the opening weekend of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival has paid off, in more ways than one.

Mostly, however, it’s made for a more pleasant psychological experience. While press screenings are crowded, there’s not the fevered mania that seems to infect the first few days – that rabid rush to be first, to see a movie before anyone else and hurry into print (or, more likely, the online universe) to announce your opinion.

By this part of the festival, that anxious, curdled, competitive, me-first feeling has passed. Sure, there was a crowd to see a press screening of “The Descendants” this morning or “Moneyball” this afternoon – but those films had press-screened and premiered already. The early adapters, as it were, had already been there, done that, tweeted this and Facebooked that about both films – if they hadn’t done it previously when the films played at the Telluride Festival over Labor Day weekend.

At this stage of the festival, there’s less of the crazed competitive feeling and more the sense of discovery and the ability to simply immerse oneself in movies, wallow in them from morning to night. Which is what I did Tuesday with another five-movie day.

Two of those films are movies that qualify as among the year’s best. I’ll go into more depth about “Moneyball” when it opens next week, but it’s a fully satisfying film experience: a movie that adapts a fascinating but intricate book, telling a true story that doesn’t easily suggest cinematic treatment. But director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) and writers Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin have done that – not to mention the outstanding cast led by Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, in particular, a delightfully deadpan Jonah Hill (who should be hearing Oscar buzz shortly). They all combine for one of the season’s most entertaining outings, one that will please baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike.

I was even more dazzled by Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” a film that had me alternately laughing and crying. Again, I’ll go into more depth when the film opens at the end of the year. But Payne’s film, about a lawyer in Hawaii coping with a comatose wife and two obstreperous but loving daughters, is as rich and complex as Payne’s previous work. Indeed, there ought to be a law that Payne has to make movies more often. His films – “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” – are each filled with feeling and unexpected comedy. That’s particularly true of “The Descendants,” which offers what may be the best performance of George Clooney’s career.

The day’s biggest disappointment was “Ten Year,” an ensemble comedy about a high-school reunion that features a strong cast of talented young actors: Justin Long, Lynne Collins, Channing Tatum, Oscar Isaac, Kate Mara, Rosario Dawson, Ari Graynor, Anthony Mackie and several more. Unfortunately, their significant talents are largely squandered in Jamie Linden’s clichéd, joke-deficient script.

I liked most of David Hare’s complex, chilly “Page Eight,” a spy tale that isn’t exactly a thriller but which might have benefited from a bit more tension. It reminded me of Stephen Poliakoff’s “Glorious 39,” which played Toronto two years ago (but never had an American release): lots of innuendo and build-up, leading to a climax that’s a bit of a letdown. Still, like “Glorious 39,” it offered a chance to watch Bill Nighy sink his teeth into a role that gives him both serious emotion and consistently smart laugh-lines to play with. A jangly Judy Davis and a plummy Michael Gambon also provide highlights, as does Rachel Weisz, in a less interesting role.

Michael Winterbottom’s “Trishna” is a reworking of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” set in modern India. Freida Pinto plays the title role, a small-town girl who catches the eye of rich playboy Jay (Riz Ahmed of “Four Lions”) while he is on vacation with pals. He’s the son of a wealthy man who owns hotels; she is a laborer who helps her family make ends meet.

Winterbottom has simplified Hardy’s tale into one of a naïve girl who’s been raised to be submissive – and so doesn’t see anything wrong with being used by the rich Jay. But her passiveness – her willingness to put her fate in his hands – dampens the film’s dramatic tension. It’s enervating to watch someone make sheep-like decisions, one after another. Winterbottom captures the oxymoron of India – the flagrantly modern clashing with the ancient traditions, the glaringly rich and the painfully poverty-stricken. Pinto conveys longing, pain and, finally, bitterness, but the film is easier to admire than to enjoy.

Or maybe it’s just that any film would suffer by comparison in a day that included both “Moneyball” and “The Descendants.”

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