It’s easy to find things to love at the Toronto film festival, especially if you let Alfred Hitchcock be your guide through the movie magic, writes Jay Stone
By Jay Stone
TORONTO — On the sidewalk of John Street, just around the corner from the theatre where most of the Toronto International Film Festival movies are screened, someone has stenciled the instruction, “Find out what you love and let it kill you.”
It’s a line from Charles Bukowski — who found out that he loved alcohol, then died of it, thus proving the authenticity of his advice, if not the wisdom — and it’s an ideal motto for TIFF, where, if you’re not done in by the pace of the films or the parties, you’re also tempted by the unlimited free doughnuts in the hospitality suite of EOne, the distributor that runs a must-visit salon on a high floor of the nearby Intercontinental Hotel.
Mmmm. Doughnuts. I mean, Movies.
It’s also something to keep in mind on the way to Hitchcock/Truffaut, an instructive documentary by Kent Jones that’s good place to start an opening weekend. It is based on the famous book-length interview between Alfred Hitchcock —previously been known in America as an entertaining but unimportant director of suspense films — and Francois Truffaut, the French critic-turned-auteur who was part of the Cahiers du cinema group that discovered Hitchcock the artist and glorified him.
It’s a magnetic deconstruction of Hitchcock’s films featuring tapes from the 1964 interview and observations from a host of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and others, explaining the art. “He’s fascinated by what terrifies him,” says Arnaud Desplechin (another festival-worthy tattoo, come to think of it), and there’s a compelling series of explanations by Scorsese of how Hitchcock placed his camera for maximum effect in Psycho: not in the famous shower scene, but in a prosaic early sequence where the Janet Leigh character is driving her car toward the Bates Motel and cinematic destiny.
Fincher says part of the art of filmmaking is making long moments into short ones and short moments into long ones. That’s worth remembering as you head a couple of movies about time — a fascinating dimension of the cinematic arts —that look at the two sides of time’s prevailing emotion, melancholy. The emotions are sweet nostalgia and bitter regret. Come. Walk this way.
The nostalgia comes in Brooklyn, John Crowley’s film of the Colm Toibin novel about a young Irish girl in the 1950s who immigrates to America, falls in love with the country and with a handsome Italian man, and then returns to Ireland to be seduced by the pull of family and of the land. There’s nothing as melancholy as a nostalgic Irishman.
It’s an old-fashioned love story without the old-fashioned saccharine, and it features an eye-opening performance by the young actress Saoirse Ronan as the girl. You get the sense that Brooklyn will be one of those movies that TIFF so frequently launches into Oscar contention. It will certainly launch it into puddles of wet love at the theatres.
And then there is 45 Years, a short study of a long marriage starring Tom Courtney and Charlotte Rampling. Lightly directed by Andrew Haigh (and based on a short story by David Constantine), it tells the story of Geoff and Kate, who live in the pretty English countryside and are preparing for their big 45th anniversary party. A surprise letter disrupts their life: it concerns a woman Geoff knew many years ago, his love before he met Kate, and her existence begins to colour her recollection of everything that has happened since. It’s a quietly angry movie that ends with a devastating scene told, for once, in real time: Geoff and Kate dance to the Platters recording of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, the whole song, and by the end of it, your heart is broken.
There is more bad news, alas, for the principals in two movies that hinge on automobile accidents. In Everything Will Be Fine, novelist James Franco (himself a real-life writer) has a tragic crash that ruins several lives, but suddenly finds himself a better writer for it. It’s an interesting idea — the responsibility of the writer is also used, although for comic effect, in the current American Mistress — that is not fully explored by director Wim Wenders. However, even raising it seems to be enough: Wenders trips lightly over several themes in the film that furthermore depicts a cold Canadian landscape (the movie is set in Quebec in winter) through a 3D camera that puts all of the drama behind gently — but ominously, you can be sure — falling snowflakes.
The festival began with another crash. Demolition, the opening night film, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a New York commodities trader whose wife is killed in a car accident in the first scene. His reaction is startling: he is totally indifferent to her death, but deeply engaged by the fact that he has lost money in the vending machine in the hospital waiting room, which refuses to give him his M&Ms (he should have tried the EOne suite.) He writes long letters to the vending machine company’s customer relations representative (Naomi Watts), explaining his frustration, which eventually boils over into the comically surreal collapse of his life.
It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the Quebecois filmmaker whose TIFF movies have ranged from the small epic (Young Victoria) to the important indie (Dallas Buyers Club) to the thoughtful adventure (Wild). Demolition is Hollywood unhinged: confounding and bizarre, and possibly a masterpiece. It also marks the further evolution of Gyllenhaal as an actor to reckon with. He’s fearless.
More good news for Canada — although not for anyone in the movie — comes in Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve (who also made Prisoners, which also starred Gyllenhaal, thus proving that film festivals are either exactly like or totally unlike life itself). It’s a tense, violent film set on the border between Arizona and Mexico, where FBI agent Emily Blunt is recruited by shadowy government agents James Brolin and Benicio del Toro to help fight the drug cartels. It’s a world familiar to those who have seen the disturbing documentary Cartel Land, a place where naked decapitated bodies are hung from bridges as a warning to others and people are kidnapped, killed and stored inside the walls of houses. It’s fast-paced, elusive and frightening, and it’s bound to undo any good that Brooklyn might have accomplished in the touchy question of immigration.
(Film students may note that both Demolition and Sicario feature scenes of people in the shower as bloody water flows down the drain, further proof that Psycho has enriched the grammar of cinema.)
Those with a taste for violence — and I know you’re out there; I’ve seen the box-office receipts — will be grimly satisfied by Legend, a biography of the real-life London gangsters the Kray brothers, who terrified the East End during the 1950s and ‘60s. Directed by Brian Helgeland with the same eye of the well-placed fist to the gut that he brought to L.A. Confidential, it’s a wildly bloody movie with an interesting gimmick. Both the Kray twins, tough Reggie and insane Ron, are played by Tom Hardy (Bronson, Mad Max) and the new techniques of filmmaking allow Hardy to interact with himself on screen. Scenes where Reggie beats people with brass knuckles while Ron — staring wild-eyed through thick glasses — beats others with both ends of a hammer are realistically disturbing. I didn’t quite get the point of Legend, but I came away with new respect for advances in green-screen technology.
That was nothing, however, compared to what Ridley Scott has accomplished in The Martian, a sci-fi epic with Matt Damon that is essentially Cast Away without oxygen. Damon plays an astronaut who is left behind on Mars, abandoned to create a humorously ironic character who waits for the full force of American knowhow to rescue him. The re-creation of rockets and space stations is astonishing, as are the scenes where Jessica Chastain, who plays the mission commander, floats through zero-gravity with all the magic of one of those dreams where you’re flying by swimming through the air. Ever have one of those?
“All those things that make movies fun and magic. The tricks of it.” That’s David Fincher talking about the allure Hitchcock, who never took us to outer space. The Martian isn’t Hitchcock — it never gets at the visceral terror of loneliness and abandonment that he would have found in the story — but it’s pretty good at what it is.
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