Entertainment Industry

Category: Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto: "Management" manages to be not bad

Mgt_aniston_zahn_55663986_5 At the Isabel Bader Theatre, one of the more intimate venues used by the festival, Sunday night saw the world premiere of the romantic comedy "Management," starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn. Written and directed by playwright Stephen Belber making his feature film debut, the film is perhaps more Sundance quirky-cute than Toronto sober-serious, but that also makes it a somewhat breezy change of pace. It is not entirely a back-handed compliment to say it could be worse. I recall a comedy in a 9 p.m.-ish Sunday night slot last year that also featured big names and it fell on its face (that would be "Bill"). "Management," based on the emotionally convincing performances by its two leads, largely holds up. Every time I felt my interest waning, a moment would come along to lure me back in.

An appearance by a star of the magnitude of Jennifer Aniston can certainly be a force to be reckoned with, and really does change the temperature of the room. In an unusual announcement, twice the crowd was told that questions should pertain to the film and that those of a personal nature would not be answered. Once Aniston, Zahn and Belber took the stage after the screening, it seemed as if half the people in the room had a cell phone or digital camera parked in front of their face, beeping and clicking and whirring throughout the Q&A. The first few rows were literally shoulder-to-shoulder with souvenir takers and amateur paparazzo.

If it all seemed a little much, sure enough, the second question came from a man in the front row who announced he had a letter that he wanted to give Aniston. There were a few moments of awkward tension before Zahn cheerily piped in, "I'll take it." It still took a few minutes for the session to feel back on track. Aniston, for her part, seemed just a little shocked, more embarrassed really, and dealt with the moment with what can only be described as a certain warm steeliness.

Just another day in the celebrity factory for one of the world's most famous people.

 

-- Mark Olsen

(Steve Zahn, Jennifer Aniston and Stephen Belber arrive at the premiere of "Management." Photo courtesy of WireImage.com)

 

Toronto: "Goodbye Solo" is good stuff

My first real discovery of the Toronto festival happened Saturday afternoon, although I cannot say it was entirely unexpected. "Goodbye Solo" is the new film from Ramin Bahrani, who was here last year with his second feature, "Chop Shop." His latest is a powerful step forward, taking the more amorphous and ambiguous aspects of his earlier films and giving the storytelling a more fully realized shape without robbing the film of a sense of mystery. That's perhaps a circular way of saying that the film has a more straightforward plot and narrative drive, while retaining a certain emotional open-endedness, a subtle way Bahrani has of not pushing a point too hard.

Set in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Bahrani is from, the story follows a Senegalese cab driver as he injects himself into the life of an old man he has picked up as a fare. Taking off from this simple idea, the film touches on all sorts of deeper themes, including the nature of friendship and the changing face of the American South.

The film marks the first leading role in the long career of Red West. A veteran character actor, West is perhaps still best known as one of the key members of Elvis Presley's "Memphis Mafia," the tight-knit entourage of friends and bodyguards who surrounded the King during his reign. West's performance, centered mostly around looks and body language rather than dialogue, plumbs real emotional depths. His final moments onscreen are riveting and heartbreaking.


Not long before the Saturday screening of "Goodbye Solo," word filtered in that it had won a FIPRESCI critics' prize at the Venice Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. Part of what's exciting about coming to a festival like Toronto year in, year out, is being able to watch and in some small sense share in the growth of filmmakers like Bahrani. To see promise fulfilled, talent stretched and amplified, is inspiring.

-- Mark Olsen

Toronto: 'Religulous' premiere, protests, Palin and more

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A small group of protesters paraded outside the world premiere of "Religulous," the comedic inquiry of religious faith directed by Larry Charles and starring Bill Maher, Saturday night at the Ryerson. Waving placards with the slogans "Pray For Bill," "Don't Mock My Religion" and "Hate + Fear + Religulous," the dozen or so protesters marched in a small circle near -- but at a safe remove from -- the front doors of the auditorium both before and after the screening.

Inside, the film was met with a standing ovation. Among the first questions during the post-screening Q&A was whether the filmmakers had hired the protesters. "It wouldn't have been so lame if I had hired them," came Maher's withering response.

Maher continued to say he'd been protested by all sorts of groups, including those who believe President Bush was involved in the destruction of the World Trade Center.

"Which I prove is not true because it worked," he added.

After Maher noted that he is also reviled by Australians for a Halloween costume he was photographed wearing which poked fun at the death of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, a decidedly Aussie-sounding voice shouted from the crowd, "I love you though, mate!"

Maher made a few jokes about Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin both before and after the film. During the Q&A he looked upward and added, "Thank you, God, for that woman."

When asked if their movie, which opens Oct. 3, was intentionally being timed to come out just before the presidential election, Charles noted dryly, "It's a miracle."

-- Mark Olsen

Toronto Film Fest: 'The Burning Plain' fizzles out

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Fresh off its premiere in Venice (see photo above), where it played to a decidedly mixed response, "The Burning Plain" arrived here in Toronto on Friday night to a decidedly mixed response.

The directing debut of writer Guillermo Arriaga, is preceded by his oft-lauded scripts for the Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarittu films "Amores Perros," "21 Grams" and "Babel." All those films, as well as Arriaga's script for "The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada," famously featured complex interlocking narratives, which overlap (or don't), splaying characters, geographies and languages across the screen in a sometimes astonishing mix of literary ambition. "The Burning Plain" suffers for essentially feeling like more of the same, from a writer (and now filmmaker) who seems intent on keeping the surprises coming.

Built around a central image of a mobile home trailer ablaze in the middle of an open field -- hence the title, get it? -- the film feels too programmatic, as it is too easy to think of the writer at work, note cards pinned to a wall or perhaps a Venn diagram drawn on a dry-erase board. The film doesn't breathe, never catches the awkward, unpredictable air of humanity as it locks itself into its creator's overly schematic conceits.

Who was in that trailer, how they got there and the ongoing emotional aftermath of what they left behind forms the centerpiece of the film, which bounces between years and locales from one cut to antihero. Once the viewer understands how all the puzzle-pieces fit together, the film becomes a bit of a slow drag as it marches dutifully along. And though the finale brings everything together in a bold, expansive montage, showing finally how a person moves forward even as they can never escape their past, it is more a relief than a revelation.

Charlize Theron continues her campaign to prove she is more than just a pretty face, portraying a wayward, self-cutting restaurant manager with deep secrets that won't stay submerged. Though she commands the screen with her presence (and occasional nudity, an increasing rarity for an actress of her stature), she is never able to connect the dots to make the character anything more than the plot device Arriaga needs her to be.

"The Burning Plain" winds up a soft fizzle, more a dutiful exercise than anything else.

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Actors JD Pardo, Charlize Theron, director Guillermo Arriaga and actors Jennifer Lawrence and Jose Maria Yazpik attend "The Burning Plain" photo call held at the Piazzale del Casino during the 65th Venice Film Festival on August 29 in Venice, Italy. Credit: Wire Image.

Toronto Film Fest: Zac Efron & Orson Welles, together for the first time

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Acquisitions teams were out in full force at the Friday night world premiere of Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles."

Arriving not just in single numbers, but rather in entire teams, representatives from Lionsgate, Miramax, Focus Features, The Weinstein Co., Sony, Paramount and numerous other companies were all hustling to get into the Ryerson Auditorium. One observer quipped, "it would be easier to just write down who's not here."

Adding to the feeling of excitement outside the auditorium before the screening was a press line packed with glitzy television outlets that would presumably not turn out in such numbers for, say, the new Dardenne Brothers film.

No, they were there for the actor playing the "me" in the film's title, "High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron. As he exited his car upon arrival, peals of squealing delight rippled their way back through a crowd of waiting young fans. In drainpipe trousers and a slim-cut suit jacket, Efron looked every bit the safely handsome object of affection, and in person his bangs have such a distinctive suspended architecture, sculpted down and over, that even Rem Koolhaas would marvel.

Receiving a rousing ovation when introduced before the picture, Richard Linklater brought out first Claire Danes, in a slinky-tight dress and teeteringly high heels. Then Linklater introduced Christian McKay, who plays Welles, promising, "You don't know Christian yet, but you're about to." Finally, out came Efron to a stroboscopic burst of flashbulbs from all manner of digital cameras. Both Danes and Efron spoke briefly, each noting that they were seeing the film for the first time as well.

Adapted by Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo from the novel of historical fiction by Robert Kaplow, the film tells the story of Welles' tumultuous 1937 theatrical production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," which he modified into a warning against fascism. It is a surprisingly rousing and loving tribute not only to the peculiar genius of Welles, but to show-people of all stripes.

The film features not only tantalizing glimpses of the finished production itself, but also amusing backstage insight into its genius, as well as the working conditions of The Mercury Theater run by Welles and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). McKay is genuinely astounding in his portrayal of Welles, pulling no punches in making him seem an egomaniacal, credit-hogging narcissist, yet somehow still winning with a devil-may-care charisma that brings out the best in others.

Danes, as shot by cinematographer Richard Pope, pops off the screen with hair like spun sunshine, a pleasant change from the flat, affectless performances she frequently turns in. Efron handily holds things together as the young upstart who stumbles into a small part and gains a modicum of entry into Welles' world.

Charming and freewheeling, the film seemed to play well even to the younger elements of the crowd, presumably not versed in the intricacies of the 1930s New York theatrical scene. The single biggest laugh of the film likely came from a simple tribute to "The Third Man" as the character of Joseph Cotten (played by James Tupper) emerged from a shadowy doorway a la Harry Lime.

Perhaps nothing better signified the film's success with the crowd than the very question of the post-screening Q&A, about the part played by Efron. From somewhere near the front of the stage, a distinctly tween-ish female voice asked, "The character of Richard, is he, like, a real person?"

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Actors Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Zac Efron and Director Richard Linklater arrive for the Toronto premiere of "Me and Orson Welles." Wire Image.

Toronto Film Fest: The Van-Dammed 'JCVD'

One of my editors has repeatedly brought up the movie "JCVD" to me whenever we have had conversations about what's playing Toronto. Honestly, I have never been sure if he was serious, being ironic or just pulling my leg.

The film, which premiered this year in Cannes and kicked off the Midnight Madness section here in Toronto, Jcvdjean_claude_van_dammefollows washed-up action star Jean-Claude Van Damme playing the role of washed-up action star Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Emotionally broken from dealing with bratty directors and a brutal divorce and child custody dispute, Van Damme is feeling disaffected, disgruntled and vulnerable, when he finds himself a hostage (and unwitting accessory) in a robbery.

I take the selections in Midnight Madness semi-seriously, as there are usually a few standouts from the standard gore and genre fare. On Friday afternoon I had ostensibly gone in to see something else and left (something I personally rarely do) after maybe 15 or 20 minutes.

Partly I wasn't into the movies and partly I was obsessing over a couple phone calls I had to make to set up interviews for later in the week. Coming out of the theater I bumped into a couple of people who were chatting up the Van Damme flick. One of them even thrust a ticket to a public screening of "JCVD" into my hand, starting pretty much immediately. I hopped in a cab and made it to the theater just in time.

I can't say I would have been better off sticking with my original choice, but I personally just couldn't stand "JCVD." The madcap meta-ness of Van Damme as Van Damme wore off pretty quickly -- it's not as if the guy was ever a master of characterization in the first place -- but moreover it was such a visually unappealing picture. Shot in dirty, distressed metallic colors with blown-out highlights in nearly every shot, to be honest I found it physically difficult to look at.

It may make me derelict in my duties as a (sometime) critic to admit to this, but I bailed on "JCVD" too. Sometimes you gotta vote with your feet.

-- Mark Olsen

Toronto Film Fest: 'Secret Life Of Bees' lands

"The Secret Life Of Bees," which had its world premiere here in Toronto on Friday night (preceded by a press screening in the morning), presents an intriguing and unusual dilemma for its distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures.

An adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd, the film stars Jennifer Toronto_secret_bees Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Queen Latifah, Paul Bettany and Dakota Fanning. Written for the screen and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who previously made the critically well-received "Love And Basketball," the film tells the story of a teenage (white) girl in the deep South in the early '60s who runs away from a troubled home life with her (black) housekeeper and finds sanctuary with a trio of (black) sisters who run their own homemade honey business.

It's what's in those parentheses that's part of the dilemma, something that says much about the racial distinctions that definitely still exist in how films are marketed and exhibited.

The film is an earnest, straightforward three-hankie melodrama about a little girl growing up and overcoming a turbulent past amid a loving and accepting group of women. Fanning gives a remarkable performance that marks a further step in her transition from cute kid to genuine actor. (The career markdown that seemed to follow the misstep of "Hounddog" -- being reviewed by your humble narrator in a week or two upon finally seeing commercial release -- notwithstanding.)

So what's the problem with "Bees," you might reasonably ask?

It could come down to choosing between money or prestige. If the distributor decides to market toward the African American themes in the story and its strong and popular African American performers, they could likely blow it out in theaters as a faux Tyler Perry flick and rake in hefty returns, although that route would likely burn the film out of theaters quickly.

The option is to play up Fanning, the film's literary pedigree and the awards-sheen of the Oscar-winning Hudson and Oscar-nominated Latifah and go for a longer-playing awards run. The hazard is that the nominations (and ticket sales) may not necessarily follow.

Do the distribution options need to be mutually exclusive? Of course not, but amid the current climate of film distribution -- fast-back turnovers vs. struggling prestige pictures -- it could lead to essentially running multiple campaigns for the same film.

-- Mark Olsen

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