Live from Toronto Film Festival 2011: Sunday, 9/11/11

September 12, 2011

I was in a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and by the time the movie was over, the World Trade Center had fallen.

It feels like I’ve been here every year since, though I know I missed at least a couple TIFFs in the past decade.

So it seemed only appropriate that I fly to the 2011 TIFF on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 itself – full circle and all that. Frankly, I had no interest in enduring yet another day of recollection and commemoration of the tragedy that defines current history. As seriously as I take the events of that dy, I feel as though I’ve been bombarded with the decade-later retrospective of the last month or so.

When the World Trade Center went down, I recall feeling as though there was no place less relevant to be at that moment than at a film festival. This year, I’m happy for the escape.

But I decided to delay heading to Toronto until Sunday, for a festival that started on Thursday, for a couple of reasons. The main one: The opening weekend of the festival is such a zoo – so jam-packed with crowds, press, movies, parties – that I decided to try the back end of the festival instead of the front.

Not that I didn’t hit the ground running. Thanks to an exceptionally early flight from New York that even managed to leave early, I checked into my Toronto hotel by 8:30 a.m. I clocked the walking time from my hotel to the massive Scotiabank multiplex where the bulk of the press screenings are held (15 minutes) and then walked the two blocks from the multiplex to the Hyatt where press credentials were being distributed.

As I walked that final two blocks, I passed friends who were headed in the opposite direction – to the Scotiabank for a 9:30 a.m. press screening. When I’d plotted my schedule for the week, I assumed that Sunday morning screenings were out of my reach and that my first movie wouldn’t be until noon. But I got my press badge and slid into a seat at that same 9:30 screening with 20 minutes to spare, the first of five movies for the day.

The film was Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz,” which is the second film written and directed by the Canadian actress. A romance with more tragedy than comedy in its mood, it’s the story of a Toronto writer, Margot (Michelle Williams), who meets an artist/rickshaw driver, Daniel (Luke Brady), while on an assignment to Nova Scotia. It’s only when they return to Toronto – having flirted on the plane and the taxi home – that they have two revelations. She reveals that she’s married; he reveals that, in fact, he lives across the street from her.

The film’s clumsy initial writing – including a painfully on-the-nose scene on the airplane – gives way to scenes that are truly, achingly romantic. Though Margot seems happily married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a cookbook writer, she’s also curious about Daniel. Five years of marriage have shrunk the romance in her marriage; the novelty of Daniel, as well as his obvious ardor, make Margot wonder whether she has settled for too little and fosters curiosity about what might be. The performances are all strong, particularly by the protean Williams, who never seems to look the same in two movies in a row.

If there was a theme to my movie-going day, it was strong work by women: Williams in “Take This Waltz”; Greta Gerwig and her posse in Whit Stillman’s wonderfully offbeat return, “Damsels in Distress”; Jennifer Westfeldt (with superb support from Adam Scott) in “Friends with Kids” (which Westfeldt also wrote and directed); Leighton Meester and Alia Shawkat in “The Oranges”; and Rebecca Hall in “The Awakening.”

Of the latter four, I most enjoyed “The Awakening,” a moody, tingly ghost story set in post-World War I England, and “Damsels in Distress,” a film that reminds us just how casually quirky and funny Stillman can be (his last film, “Last Days of Disco,” was in 1998).

“Awakening” casts the tough but willowy Hall as a 1921 ghost-buster: someone who makes her living debunking spiritualists who promote séances offering conversations with the dead. She’s written a best-selling book on the subject, but also suffers from the pain she causes to the believers whose séances she disrupts. When she is recruited to investigate a ghost at a boys’ boarding school where a child has been killed, she winds up getting more than she bargained for. It’s a showcase for Hall, who is at once strong and panicked, forthright and trapped in her own head.

“Damsels in Distress” is a treat – a goofy tale of a group of college women (led by Gerwig) whose mission is to save their fellow coeds from themselves. They run the suicide prevention center, using doughnuts and tap-dancing to improve people’s moods. They also preach against dating guys normally regarded as cool: That way lies heartbreak, Gerwig’s Violet says. Better that the girl should find a crude doofus and mold him to her own specifications.

Stillman’s flat affect and screwy one-liners are played with a straight face by a cast that brings pitch-perfect sense to Stillman’s off-beat tone. “Damsels in Distress” won’t be for everyone – but it will tickle those who get in the swing.

Another full day is in store on Monday. Time to get some sleep; while that early plane meant no traffic to or from the airport, a half-empty jet and early departure and arrival, there’s that whole getting up at 4 a.m. thing that’s about to catch up with me.

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