It's impossible to be everything to everyone, right? Not if you're the Toronto International Film Festival, which has heartily served the insatiable cinematic needs of North American studios, stars, press, programmers and movie-mad civilians for more than 30 years. Safely vaccinated with the cream of the crop from Berlin, Cannes and Venice, the festival of festivals is perennially immune to having a disastrous year.
The trick, of course, is to make the world premieres as memorable as all those other international festival faves. And at the halfway point, this year's edition has a trio of Canadian native sons holding that maple leaf high.
The best of the lot is David Cronenberg, whose London-set Russian gangster drama "Eastern Promises" delivers a richly textured character study of family ties and personal loyalties, all told with a slow burn pace punctured by thunderbolt revelations and Viggo Mortensen's chillingly cool performance as a steely thug with Machiavellian desires.
Quebec-born Jason Reitman follows up his 2005 TIFF hit "Thank You for Smoking" with "Juno," a sparklingly spunky romantic comedy about a precocious high school junior (Ellen Page) whose unwanted pregnancy leads her to contact Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, a barren couple desperate to adopt. Whimsical title designs and a painfully precious folk-rock score stress the film's naked attempt to ape the quirky appeal of "Napolean Dynamite" and "Rushmore," shamefully marring what is otherwise a cheeky and surprisingly touching story filled with a roster of delightful performances.
The most impassioned of this Great White North troika, though, is clearly Manitoba maven Guy Maddin, whose hilariously disturbing fever-dream visions are no stranger to TIFF. His latest, "My Winnipeg," is a breathlessly psychosexual reflection on his own upbringing in the famously freezing city, a dizzying conflation of personal narrative and civic history that confronts the nature of memory and examines its role as seed to modern mythmaking.
Extremist filmmaking legends Dario Argento and Werner Herzog added to the dementia with their own wonderful world premieres. Horror maestro Argento's "Mother of Tears," the last in a trilogy that includes Suspiria and Inferno, delivered gallons of gore and a delicious lead performance by Argento's bambina Asia, along with apocalyptic lesbian witches, a cesspool of rotting corpses and a woman being strangled to death with her own intestines.
Herzog, on the other hand, finds alienating horror of a much more compelling sort in "Encounters at the End of the World," his darkly absorbing study of life at the South Pole. Examining not only the naked continent's natural inhabitants but also its transient human residents, Herzog probes the poetic nature of loneliness and isolation in a barren wasteland.
Venice imports, arriving here in Toronto just days after their world premieres, offered up chances to watch a panoply of filmmakers in the midst of their own personal evolution. Tony Gilroy graduates from acclaimed screenwriter to neophyte director with "Michael Clayton," a keenly intelligent corporate thriller that glows with radiant performances from George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollock and Tilda Swinton. The superbly crafted "Atonement" marks Joe Wright's second time behind the camera, boasting a technical assurance that unfortunately outshines the handful of narrative flaws which prevent a deeply sad melodrama from becoming a true tragedy of epic proportions. And Andrew Dominik's sophomore picture, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," brings an astonishingly visceral sense of visual language to bear on a somewhat torpid but still hypnotizing drama of obsession, vanity, idol-bashing and fame's fickle penalties.
A pair of other Venice selections showed established auteurs not just evolving but experimenting with new forms of style and content. Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution," his bold but disappointing and overlong WWII erotic spy thriller, is a misstep in a calculated career of eclectic choices--an example of a humanist, compassionate director trying and failing to tackle material that required a deeper sensuality and a darker perversity. (The Venitian judges didn't mind, though: the film won the festival's Gold Lion on Saturday).
More encouraging was Peter Greenaway's "Nightwatching," his arrestingly vivid and (oddly enough for him) downright romantic account of how Rembrandt Van Rijn created his masterpiece "The Night Watch." A welcome return to form for a man who seemed hopelessly mired in the formalism of multi-screen, hyper-texted images, "Nightwatching" has a surprisingly conventional narrative that concentrates on Rembrant's heartbreaking devotion to his wife--and yet never lacks for the thematic complexity of the artistic process that the eminently theatrical and wildly cinematic director's best films exemplify. "Nightwatching" is not a flawless work, but neither is "Lust, Caution," which tumbles into its piutfalls with a heavier thump. Both show that when a filmmaker pushes himself past redundancy and into unfamiliarity, the risks are steep--but the rewards are that much more satisfying.
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