Live from Toronto Film Festival 2011: Wednesday, Sept. 14

September 15, 2011


Given the size of the Toronto Film Festival and the goals I have when I’m here (primarily to see movies that will be released so I can bank reviews for later – and scout movies for the film series that I program), it’s rare that I have the opportunity to discover something small, weird and exciting.

But I did last night. God bless Bobcat Goldthwait – his fourth film, “God Bless America,” may turn out to be my favorite viewing experience of the festival. Outrageous, bitter and wildly, inappropriately funny, “God Bless America” had me roaring at the story of a newly minted spree killer, who decides to eliminate all of what he sees as the worst of American popular culture, beginning with a spoiled rich brat who’s the star of a reality show and ending up on the stage of an “American Idol”-doppelganger with an AK47.

Played by Joel Murray, the film’s central character, Frank, is an average guy from Syracuse, who tells his cubicle-mate at work that he doesn’t find morning radio amusing because “I’m not afraid of foreign people or people with vaginas.” Goldthwait summarizes his film in a line of Frank’s early on: “Why have a civilization if we’re no longer interested in being civil?”

Goldthwait’s previous two films also specialized in the viciously funny: the horrifyingly squirmy comedy “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” and equally unholy and painfully laugh-provoking “World’s Greatest Dad.” Hopefully, “God Bless America” will find a wider audience than the previous two, which barely got released. Goldthwait’s films have teeth and aren’t for everyone, but there’s definitely an audience that shares his sense of outrage about just how low our lowest common denominator has fallen. “God Bless America” is Goldthwait’s most snarlingly subversive comedy yet.

I saw four other films on Wednesday, all much closer to the mainstream – although Jim Field Smith’s “Butter” may raise a few hackles on the right when it’s released next year. It’s a sharp-edged comedy about a hard-driving Iowa woman (Jennifer Garner), whose husband is the long-standing Iowa state butter-carving champion. When he is forced to retire (after 15 consecutive wins, including carving a scene from “Schindler’s List” in butter), his wife – an uptight housewife whose crazed, fixed gaze may bring Michele Bachmann to mind for some – decides she is going to enter herself, to keep the title in the family. A terrific cast includes Ty Burrell (“Modern Family”) as her husband, Yara Shahidi as a black child who becomes her competitor, and Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone as her foster parents. It’s an unexpected crowd pleaser, one that finds the weirdness of Midwestern state-fair culture without making Midwesterners – as much as this particularly hateful woman – the butt of the joke.

“Hysteria” was also surprisingly funny. Much of the humor comes from the juxtaposition of Victorian-era British reserve – particularly about sex – and the subject matter: hysteria, what was once a common diagnosis for anything that ailed a woman. In fact, the treatment that upper-crust women seek from a specialist (Jonathan Pryce) and his new assistant (Hugh Dancy) in 1880 London amounts to doctor-on-patient masturbation; the “paroxysms” the doctors induce are, in fact, orgasms, unsurprisingly calming the nerves of the patients. The film’s central joke is that newcomer Dancy begins to develop what would now be called carpal tunnel syndrome (talk about occupational hazards) – and winds up accidentally inventing the electric vibrator. It’s all played with a blend of stiff upper lip and delicious comic panic by a very funny cast that includes sensibilities be Rupert Everett as Dancy’s best friend and a somewhat miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a woman far ahead of her time.

My other two films of the day were both dark and violent, though “Killer Joe” had moments of comedy between its bloody outbursts. Based on a play by Tracy Letts, this film by William Friedkin (who also directed a film of Letts’ play “Bug”) builds in intensity, springing surprises in twisted fashion, thanks to an intensely low-key performance by Matthew McConaughey in the title role. It’s not hard to draw a line from the messed-up family in this film and the one in Letts’ subsequent play, “August, Osage County.”

The story focuses on a not-quite-bright young man, Chris (Emile Hirsch), who believes he can solve his gambling debts by hiring a killer to eliminate his hateful (and unseen) mother for the insurance money. He brings in Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a cop who provides services on the side. When Joe learns there is no money to pay him in advance, he takes Chris’ pragmatic and nubile sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as his retainer. There is more plot, involving Chris’ dirtball father (Thomas Haden Church) and the father’s new wife (Gina Gershon). The reversals and relationships are played for comedy – right up until they become deadly serious. The real electricity here belongs to McConaughey and Temple, who have one of the most creepy/sexy seduction scenes in recent memory. If the film is a hit, it would be a break-out for Temple, who has yet to find the role to call her to the public’s attention.

Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” is a tour de force for Woody Harrelson, who got an Oscar nomination for Moverman’s “The Messenger.” Harrelson plays Dave Brown, an L.A. cop in 1999, working in the Rampart Division, which has been sullied by a scandal involving dirty narcotics cops. Though the scandal was real, Harrelson’s character is fictional: a hard-charging street cop who could have been a lawyer and who is still suspected of killing of a serial rapist in cold blood.

When a driver smashes into his squad car, then runs away, Dave chases him and beats the crap out of him, an act that is caught on video. Dave finds himself a pawn in the city’s and the police department’s P.R. war – an attention-magnet whose acts will draw focus away from the Ramparts scandal. He’s also dealing with the collapse of his home life – and finds himself hurting for cash when he fights the department’s attempts to cashier him.

Though the cast includes tart performances in smaller roles by Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Robin Wright, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon and Ice Cube, it’s Harrelson’s movie from start to finish. He seems to spend the entire film with his jaw clenched, though it occasionally loosens to a smile, if only for seconds. But he’s impressive as a guy who begins to believe he can trust no one and then seemingly sets out to prove it.

I’ve got one more day in Toronto and hope to see three more films before I make my break for the border. I’ll wrap up with tomorrow’s dispatch.

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