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Category: Toronto International Film Festival

TIFF review roundup: 'Defendor'


Actor-turned-director Peter Stebbing's "Defendor," which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is the kind of picture that tends to bring out the sympathetic side in critics (yes, they have one) -- a doggedly determined indie with an eclectic outlook that will, most likely, keep it from achieving a wide audience.

"Defendor," with its story of an oddball (Woody Harrelson) who dons a makeshift costume to fight crime, is just such a film, and the reviews have been, as expected, kind, though honest in their expectations. Variety dubs it "modest but likable" but predicts "eyeblink theatrical play." Twitch expends a few more words in its defense, especially in favor of Stebbings and Harrelson, whose performance is "strong enough that [the film's] flaws are easy to forgive." Eye Weekly is effusive in its praise for the "dark street fantasy," which, "despite its efforts to be as brazenly naive as its hero, is just as gold-hearted." No word on a pickup for theatrical release, but here's hoping. BTW, a few online sources have cited "Defendor's" similarity to another hapless (and underrated) superhero comedy, 2007's "Special," with Michael Rappaport. It's available on DVD from Magnolia Pictures, and worth a look.

-- Paul Gaita

Photo: Alliance Films

The life and death of a family: 'I Am Love' screens in Toronto

"There are some people here tonight, and they know who they are, who I have been banging on about Luca Guadagnino for 11 years now," Tilda Swinton said prior to Sunday's screening of "I Am Love" at the Toronto International Film Fest. "And tonight I hope I'm vindicated."

She most certainly was. "I Am Love," directed and co-written by Guadagnino, is a sprawling, ambitious story of a wealthy industrial Italian family facing changes both big and small. The film has become one of the buzz items here in Toronto, a frequent topic of cocktail chatter and idle discussion, in part following a near-ecstatic review in Variety a week or so ago following the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

Swinton plays a sort-of middle-generation matriarch, a Russian woman who married into the Italian family. (Swinton speaks Italian and Russian and a little halting English in the film.) With Visconti's classic "The Leopard" as the most obvious touchstone, "I Am Love" captures a sense of how larger cultural forces -- the globalizing economy, for one -- can affect the most intimate moments of people's lives. Guadagnino gives the film an amazingly accomplished, fully rounded feel. The film looks at once contemporary and timelessly retro, while the pulsing, buzzing orchestral music by John Adams adds a staggering emotional punch.

-- Mark Olsen

TIFF Review Round-up: 'A Serious Man,' 'Invention of Lying'


Reviews for the Toronto International Film Festival screenings of the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man" (pictured) and the Ricky Gervais-directed and -penned "The Invention of Lying" have filtered through the Internet this morning, and we are pleased to digest them for you.

Variety seems to hit the nail on the head in regard to "Serious," a modest, indie-minded drama with no major stars: "It's the kind of picture you get to make after you win an Oscar."  The Hollywood Reporter is more generous with its praise for its humor and performances, but acknowledges its possibly limited appeal ("it's not likely to expand the membership [of Coen Brothers' fans]'"). Cinematical, however, is effusive about the picture, citing it as "the culmination of their lives." Wow.

Meanwhile, the few pundits who have weighed in on Ricky Gervais' comedy "The Invention of Lying" seem largely pleased with the picture. Screen Daily calls its premise -- Gervais' schlubby screenwriter spins a colossal fib to win the heart of Jennifer Garner -- "worthy of a screwball farce," while Dark Horizons considers the pic "entertaining and thought-provoking." The film opens in theaters October 2.

-- Paul Gaita

Photo: "A Serious Man" / Focus Features

You can: "Whip It"

DrewBarrymore2Story As much as there gets to be a routine at film festivals, some screenings are simply not like all the others. take, for example, Sunday night's world premiere of "Whip It," the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. Walking up to the theater there was a gauntlet of roller derby girls enthusiastically high-fiving audience members as they entered. In the lobby, actor Justin Long was moving quickly from the vicinity of the bathrooms, with two paparazzi photographers and a videographer giving chase at power-walk speeds. (That last part, especially, not an everyday festival occurrence.)

The festival's Noah Cowan introduced Barrymore, referring to her as a "populist, feminist philosopher." Taking the stage in a bright yellow dress with a printed insect-like pattern, her hair styled in a short blond swoop with punkish black tips, Barrymore excitedly began thanking various production companies and producing partners, seeming to almost choke up a bit before rebounding. She then launched into one of the more extended introductions of this year's festival, bringing up 13 cast members with such exaltations as "one of the most important actresses ever," "one of the most talented women I have ever known," "literally the hottest style of anyone I have ever met" and "the heart and soul of the movie." Writer Shauna Cross took a small tumble backwards as she took her place in the line-up, nearly crashing into the theater's screen, and actress Ellen Page walked with particular care and deliberation in deference to her very high-heeled shoes.

As for the film itself, it is a perfectly functional person-finds-self dramedy mixed with the narrative structure of a sports film, telling the story of a small-town Texas girl (Page) who rebels against her mother's dream of beauty pageant glory to become a star roller derby player. Cross's screenplay feels at time programmatic, and the dialouge lacks the idiosyncratic spark of something like "Juno," an obvious template for the film. The actress Alia Shawkat, best known for her role on the television series "Arrested Development," walks away with all her scenes as Page's best friend, bringing an elastic snap to her role that is missing from much of the rest of the film. At times Juliette Lewis brings such intensity to her part as a rival roller derby player that it seems as if no one informed her the film is ostensibly a comedy. For all it's flaws, the film does have a certain likable pluck and upbeat spirit, and considering the dearth of  positive imagery for young women it is difficult to bust on a film that ends with the exhortation, "To all the girls who believe you can... You can."

As the credits rolled it seemed as if some of the audience realized there would be no Q and A, but the half to two-thirds that stuck around simply did not want to leave. For a few minutes, spontaneous bursts of applause would break out, as would shouts of "Drew, you're amazing!" or "Ellen too, yeah!" Finally Barrymore, standing in the center of the room, shouted out "Everybody, thank you for coming" before making her way to the stage door.

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Drew Barrymore at the "Whip It" premiere in Toronto.
Credit: Associated Press

Michael Moore film says capitalism must die

Moore Twenty years after getting his start at the Toronto film festival with "Roger & Me," Michael Moore was back Sunday night among 1,400 cheering friends for the first public screening of "Capitalism: A Love Story," without question destined to be his most controversial film yet. Even the protesters out front were in his camp.

This time the documentary filmmaker's target is not a corporate titan, like General Motors' CEO Roger Smith was all those years ago, but a concept -- capitalism -- so American as to seem like the country would cease to exist without it. And so, by extension, Moore's target is us, a population that his film argues has come to confuse capitalism with democracy, which is the one thing he believes could actually save us.

It is an extremely risky gambit and Moore knows it.

"At least we'll have one good night with a bunch of Socialists from Canada," Moore said as the crowd roared.

As good a filmmaker as Moore is, he's not bad as a stand-up either. The film was screening in the city's historic Elgin Theatre in the Visa Screening Room. Soon after taking the stage in his now familiar trucker's hat, suit and tennis shoes, he crooned sotto voce "Welcome to the Visa screening room, Visa..." before telling about the nervous calls he got asking if there was anything about the credit card giant in his film.

But it was, for the most part, not a night for laughs as the film opened with a '50s-style health warning -- those with heart conditions, or small children, should leave immediately. While it drew laughs, they weren't hearty ones because the subtext was clear, this was going to be no easy ride.

The documentary is in its own way an activist love letter for a different time, one he feels passionately we should reclaim, as he intercuts his own family's home movies of vacations -- "me here on Wall St." accompanied by a shot of an 8 or 9 year old Moore -- or a recent walk with his now 88-year-old father to the empty lot that once was a massive spark-plug factory where his dad worked for nearly four decades. His father had made the trip from Flint, Moore told us, and was in the audience.

Moore's confrontational provocations, which he first introduced us to in his relentless hounding of GM's Smith for an interview to explain the massive downsizing of the Flint, Mich. operation all those years ago, now feels familiar. It feels softened in this film, perhaps because he felt the need to spend so much time in setting the table for his message. He takes us back to Rome, with a textbook explanation of why the empire collapsed juxtaposed with images that remind us how relevant those words are today,

There are heartbreaking vignettes of foreclosed families. An interview with a guy whose company is called "Condo Vultures," and is in the business of buying up and reselling foreclosed properties. As he explains it the only thing what separates him from a real vulture is that he doesn't vomit on himself (his idea of a joke).

Moore walks us through the so-called "dead peasants" life insurance policies that companies take out on their employees -- not for the families, but to enrich corporate coffers. There are charts and graphs and news clips explaining how Wall Street took over Washington, how the disparity between rich and poor grew so wide. And there is the trademark Moore confrontational fun: the filmmaker wrapping Citibank, Chase, et al. in yellow crime scene tape, trying to make a citizen's arrest of their boards of directors.

The film gets tougher and tougher as it goes along with his hometown priests, among others, denouncing capitalism as not just a failed economic system, but as an evil that must be eradicated. I saw one woman slip out at this point, but the rest of the audience seemed mesmerized, barely moving except for the occasional ironic bit that allowed us a second of comic relief.

After a standing, cheering ovation as the final credits rolled, more than half the audience stayed for the Q&A after. The questions, unlike Moore, were not confrontational. Did he have hope that Obama would bring change? He did, though he's not giving him forever to do it. Was he angry over the deification of President Regan? He was.

And then it was over, unless you wanted to join the nearby worker protest -- there were directions.

--Film critic Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Michael Moore arrives at the screening for "Capitalism: A Love Story." Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Overture.

Zombies On Parade: "George A. Romero's Survival Of The Dead"


"My routine: make a movie about a human condition and use the dead to tell the story."  So said legendary filmmaker George A. Romero after the midnight premiere Saturday night of his latest zombie opus, "Survival Of the Dead."

Prior to the screening, Romero has walked the red carpet followed by a small cadre of fans dressed in zombie outfits with bloody makeup. The atmosphere inside the theater was one of warmth and community, as hardcore genre fans are very much a tribe unto themselves. Romero has a special place in the hearts of those in the audience Saturday, not only for his groundbreaking films such as "Night of The Living Dead" and "Dawn Of The Dead," but also because he has lived in Toronto for the past four years and recently became a Canadian citizen.

If only "Survival" had the same energy and punky spirit as his last film, "Diary of the Dead," which also screened at TIFF. Romero's latest effort seems flat and disjointed, as he tries to cram together generic imagery from the Western, a fisherman's fable, an army story, missing money, twin sisters and, naturally, zombies. The film's best moment is its very last shot, as two figures face off for a final duel against a bright moon. They both pull the trigger on their guns only to hear the hammers click against an empty chamber, a sound Romero repeats against a black screen.

Romero's zombie films are well-known for their elements of social commentary, and he was asked what this film specifically had on its mind. "Some of the films have been really specific," he said, "but this one is more general. It's about war, it's about tribalism, and how people can't forget those they label enemies even in the face of a huge, species-eradicating event."

Considered somewhat oracular with regards to zombie mythology, Romero was asked for his thoughts on the recent surge in "fast zombies," movies with undead that move at startling speeds. (There are circles in which this is considered a great controversy, as the immediate shouts from the audience proved.) "Zombies cannot run," Romero emphatically replied. "They can't run.

Asked -- by someone dressed as a zombie -- to do his own best zombie impression, Romero, 69, responded, "I'm at the age where all I have to do is walk down the street."

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Romero poses with some zombie fans. / Associated Press

Reitman and the Coens and Men in suits

For filmmakers Jason Reitman and the Coen brothers, the Toronto Film Festival is like coming home -- both found their footing here when their first films were embraced by this audience, as well as the ones that have come after. This year they're back with the filmmakers each examining men in suits and their troubled souls. Reitman in "Up in the Air" and Joel and Ethan Coen with "A Serious Man."

George Clooney in Reitman's movie and Michael Stuhlbarg in the Coen brothers are cut from the same cloth. Men who have set a course with their lives now forced to dig deeper just when they thought they had things figured out. These are locked down lives where suits and ties are really not optional and answers don't come easily, though, if the truth be told, they'd much rather the questions had never been raised.

In "Up in the Air," which Reitman says he began writing six years ago long before he had any idea it would seem so relevant, Clooney is something of a grim reaper of corporate downsizing, the man hired by companies to come in and fire their employees and ease them across the River Styx to unemployment and an unexpected, uncertain future on the other side. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role than Clooney, that man has an uncanny ability to deliver bad news and leave us feeling grateful for it.

As captivating as Clooney can be, and he is here, it is the parade of faces and the stories that the newly fired tell us that may well leave us, as they did another of the film's stars, Jason Bateman in the audience for the film's premiere here, with a face streaked by tears.

In "A Serious Man,"  Larry Gopnick (Stuhlbarg) is a good man who finds himself struggling to understand why his life is suddenly imploding around him. As bit by bit one piece after another falls away, Larry begins a search for understanding, essentially asking 'what is God telling me, what does it mean?' of the three wise men (his Rabbis), one lawyer and a very troublesome relative in Richard Kind, none of whom help him a great deal.

The film is fundamentally an examination of God, faith and religion, weighty subjects pushed through the Coens' sieve, which means laced with irony and satire. Just how the fimmakers manage to offer up extreme absurdity in such a remarkably understated way (think "Fargo") is just another mystery that, like Larry, they're content to leave us to figure out on our own.

Two very different films, two very different leading men, yet two sides of the same story. Both examining a coming of middle-age for their prototagonists; both likely to fuel much cinematic conversation this fall. 

--Film critic Betsy Sharkey

Smooth Landing: "Up In The Air"

Who trumps George Clooney? Oprah. Or, at least she did Saturday night when Oprah Winfrey (with best friend Gayle King in tow) entered the Ryerson Theatre to sit for the first public screening of "Up In the Air." As Oprah entered the auditorium, her name spilled over the crowd like a wave, while repeated shouts and more than a few "I love you's" suddenly made it unclear who exactly the crowd was there to see.

In an attempt to settle the crowd, all of whom were watching Oprah, a festival programmer stood onstage and asked, "Please sit down and turn around." When that didn't work, Jason Reitman, director and co-writer of the film, stepped to the microphone and begged/ordered, "We gotta get the movie started!"

"This feels like home," he said  a few moments later in his opening remarks, consciously or unconsciously echoing a sentiment in the film he was about to unveil.

Reitman has now premiered all three of his feature films at the Ryerson, and he said that he asked not to be given a gala slot in the festival this year because it would mean showing in a different venue.

"I hope I premiere every movie I ever make here," he said. "It's this audience I think about when I'm writing, when I'm directing, when I'm editing -- I make my movies for you."

Perhaps it goes without saying that with an introduction like that -- and the energy of Oprah's tacit approval -- the film played extremely well to the audience.The story, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, concerns a man (George Clooney) who travels for a living, flying from city to city to terminate people from their jobs. With few connections or relationships to keep him tethered, he takes comfort in the uncomplicated efficiency of his life. Complications, inevitabaly, ensue.

The film looks to be a serious contender in this year's award race, a notion Paramount Pictures looks to be betting heavily on. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor , Best Supporting Actress for  either Anna Kendrick as Clooney's plucky young co-worker or Vera Farmiga as his on-the-road fling he actually grows attached to -- none of these ideas sounds like outrageous speculation (for nominations at least) when considering the current awards-season playing field.

After the film, Reitman introduced a small squadron of producers, including his father, Ivan Reitman. The younger Reitman noted, "He came up with the best line in the movie. You know that line you applauded?"  -- and it won't be revealed here -- "My dad wrote that line."

After George Clooney was the last member of the cast to take to a very full stage, he joked, "I'd like to thank you all for coming to my intervention."

If there is some temptation to draw a connection between Clooney's real-life bachelor ways and those of his on-screen character, a question from the audience asked just that. Clooney feigned a belly laugh at the idea and allowed simply, "We're the same height, we have the same hair color... Thanks for asking."

-- Mark Olsen

The Collective Wazoo: "The Informant!"

MattDamonSoderberghStory Shortly before the start time of Friday's screening of "The Informant!" the film festival's Noah Cowan was waiting outside the Elgin Theater amidst a swirl of photographers, gawkers, gladhanders and people scrambling for a ticket. "Every minute Matt Damon's car doesn't get here, my amusing introduction gets shorter and shorter," he said.

Onstage moments later, Cowan had to merely say the name of director Steven Soderbergh to bring a swell of applause from the crowd. After bringing out producers Gregory Jacobs and Jennifer Fox, screenwriter Scott Burns and actors Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula and, yes, Matt Damon (who received a loud ovation of his own and a lightening storm of camera flashes), Cowan introduced Soderbergh to another huge round of applause. Soderbergh charged across the stage and high-fived those standing in a line there as if it were a basketball pre-game.

"I'm going to be a little smarmy and blow a little smoke up your collective wazoo," Soderbergh said, noting that he was also at the festival 20 years ago with his debut, "Sex, Lies and Videotape," 10 years ago with "The Limey," and last year with "Che."

"The reason I keep coming back," he added, "and the reason most filmmakers keep coming back is partially because it's a beautiful city, partially because the festival is so well-run, but it's mostly because the audiences are so great."

Flattered and primed as they were, "The Informant!" went over well with the audience. A comedy about shenanigans in the corn business, and a corporate whistle-blower (a toupee-adjusting Damon) who turns out to have a broader agenda, the film is also cerebral, distancing and difficult at times to get a grasp on. Soderbergh continually shifts the audience's footing, teasing them along with what might best be described as an unreliable interior monologue. Though some -- like me -- might find the film's tactics exciting and idiosyncratic, others may find them off-putting. If there were question after last spring's release of "Duplicity" as to whether smart, adult films have a spot in the contemporary marketplace, the strange ways of "The Informant!" may bring more answers. 

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Matt Damon, right, and director Steven Soderbergh attend a press conference for "The Informant!" at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Credit: Frank Gunn / Associated Press

A Comic Call To Action: "The Trotsky"

JayBaruchel1Story The first unexpected delight of the festival arrived on Friday night with the premiere screening of "The Trotsky," a fresh twist, believe it or not, on the high school comedy. Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Jacob Tierney (and produced by his father Kevin Tierney), the film is the story of a boy named Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky and is convinced his life will follow the same contours. He even has a chart on his wall, reminding him to marry and older woman (preferably named Alexandra), find his Lenin, get exiled (twice) and ultimately be assassinated (hopefully somewhere warm).

Tierney mines not just humor but unexpectedly empathy from this promise, crafting a film that has a terrific energy but that is also surprisingly uplifting, an unlikely call to arms for engagement and activism. When Leon is sent as punishment from his private boarding school to a local public school, he discovers a disaffected student body who, it is often asked, suffers from either boredom or apathy. In his attempt to unionize the students, Leon charges up burnouts, losers and outsiders who might never have seen themselves as the types to get involved. All this is done with a buzzing playfulness and just enough knowing nods towards actual history, such as when Leon asks a possible rival, "Are you my Stalin, Dwight?" (That line is so funny another character wonders if she should put it on a T-shirt, and whether it would make a better band name or album name.)

Tierney is aided immeasurably by his cast. Baruchel, sort of a JV-player on the Judd Apatow comedy team, gives a performance one might easily have not thought in him, taking over the screen with his over-long legs, dangling arms and outsized head. At times reminiscent of Max Fischer from "Rushmore," Baruchel's Leon is at once charmingly fallible and, perhaps, actually a leader in the making. The supporting cast is also entirely spot-on, including a wonderful turn by Michael Murphy, best known for his work in prime-vintage Woody Allen and Robert Altman films, as a burned-out former radical who finds himself reignited by Leon's commitment and enthusiasm.

The film received a boisterous standing ovation (though perhaps with an asterisk to allow for a Canadian film with numerous jokes specific to Canadian life). During a post-screening Q and A, Tierney, 29, was asked about the fact he had originally written the script as a teenager and recently returned to it, and how it had changed.

"The original version was deadly serious," Tierney noted. "It was just like this but not a comedy."

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: "The Trotsky" star Jay Baruchel during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Credit: Associated Press


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