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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Toronto 2010

Toronto 2011: Who's the inspiration for Olivia Wilde's stripper?

September 15, 2011 |  3:13 pm

Olivia wilde is in butter Filmgoers who caught Jim Field Smith's political satire "Butter" at the Toronto International Film Festival have been making a sport of guessing just who some of the characters in the Midwestern fable are supposed to represent.

Is Jennifer Garner's smug butter-carving competitor Laura Pickler a stand-in for Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann? (Harvey Weinstein, who is releasing the film, certainly seems to be inclined toward the latter.) Is the 11-year-old African American girl competing against her in Iowa supposed to be a 2008-era Barack Obama?

Movie fans, though, may find some real-world familiarity in another character -- namely, Olivia Wilde's Brooke, a brash stripper who attempts to beat Laura at her own game. As you watch the film, she seems, it may slowly occur to you, an awful lot like Diablo Cody. (The Weinstein Co. isn't releasing any official photos yet of Wilde in the role, but some fan sites have posted some.)

Cody is of course the voluble and self-mythologizing screenwriter behind movies like "Juno" and "Jennifer's Body." The similarities between her and Wilde's character are subtle but unmistakable.

Diablo codyLike Brooke, Cody was once a stripper and is covered in upper-body tattoos. Like Brooke,  Oscar winner Cody has a certain swagger and also sought to reinvent herself in another discipline that doesn't involve pole dancing, in the hope of landing a big prize.

Oh, and Cody's real first-name? Brooke.

Screenwriter Jason Micaleff acknowledges he had the "Juno" writer in mind--sort of.

 "Slightly inspired by Diablo (who is thrilled and excited to see it, I hear)," he replied in an email when we put the question to him.

Micallef said that, perhaps unlike some of the more barbed portrayals of U.S. politicians, he intended the Brooke character as homage. "I was intrigued by the idea of a wickedly smart stripper," he said. ("Butter" is slated for general release next year, but if you can't wait that long, it will get a brief one-week run in theaters at the end of October.)


Micallef also wrote that the character carried a larger meaning too. "Brooke thematically represents anarchy, which is why, in a time when everyone hates the government, audiences love her so much."

He then offered that the character had her own Twitter address (@BrookeTokyoRose)--an act of self-branding that might befit, well, Diablo Cody.


Toronto 2011: Harvey Weinstein carves 'Butter' into political statement

'Evil Dead' remake: Diablo Cody polishing script for first-time director

Toronto 2011: Sarah Palin gets a Bronx cheer in new documentary

--Steven Zeitchik in Toronto

Photos: (Top) Olivia Wilde poses for a portrait to promote the film "Butter" at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday. Credit: Associated Press/Carlo Allegri

(Bottom) Diablo Cody at the Academy Awards in 2008. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times

24 Frames chat: The fate of 'The King's Speech,' and other prognostications on the fall

September 23, 2010 |  9:30 am

The season’s most important film festivals are behind us, as are the end-of-summer doldrums. That means the best of the fall and holiday movies are now set to arrive -- a smashup derby of highbrow dramas (and the occasional comedy) competing for not only awards attention but also box-office traction.

One of the better indications of how these films will perform in theaters is how they played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Film reporters John Horn and Steven Zeitchik covered these two festivals and returned with a sense of what we can expect from the months ahead. Their conversation follows.

John Horn: One of the more important film-festival awards is Toronto’s People’s Choice audience award—the list of recent winners includes “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Whale Rider” and “American Beauty.” Will that prize boost the Weinstein Co.’s “The King’s Speech”?

Steven Zeitchik: I was surprised by how many people whom I wouldn’t have expected to like "The King's Speech" came out of the Toronto screenings raving about the movie. But when I mentioned the film to people back home, some could barely suppress a yawn.

JH: It’s like “The Queen”—the more you try to describe it, the worse it sounds, When you say “The King’s Speech” is about a royal stuttering problem, it’s both accurate and totally wrong.

SZ: It's also the kind of movie a lot of film-goers feel that they’ve seen before -- a repressed monarch learns to get in touch with his feelings, the crown is redeemed, God save the Queen. But it transcends that genre too. The key will be getting audiences to see it. If you can get enough people to do that, the word of mouth will take care of the rest.

JH: Fox Searchlight’s "Black Swan," from director Darren Aronofsky, played well at both Telluride and Toronto. But is it the kind of film that tends to do better at festivals than in the real world?

SZ: Actually, I'm not sure that's true. To me, it feels a little like an art-house “Inception” -- there’s such intrigue around the premise (and, okay, the Natalie Portman-Mila Kunis lesbian love scene) that I think a lot of people will turn out, if only to see what all the fuss is about.

JH: This coming from the guy who said Focus Features’ “The Kids Are All Right” wasn’t going to gross $15 million.

SZ: I will never again underestimate the box-office potential of movies with lesbian themes.

JH: The hardest movie for me to read is Fox Searchlight’s "127 Hours." We know the ending—hiker cuts off his hand and is rescued. Will that also amputate its box-office reach? And with all the talk of people fainting at screenings, what might have worked for William Castle in the 1950s could actually be more of a liability than a sales hook.

SZ: There is a little bit of the Six Flags "Not for the faint of heart" tag on this one, which won't help. But once people realize the film isn't that graphic, I think they'll come see it. Star James Franco and director Danny Boyle can generate a lot of goodwill. Plus there's a happy ending. Sort of.

JH: It seemed like Ben Affleck (“The Town”) did better in Toronto than his brother Casey (the Joaquin Phoenix fauxumentary “I’m Still Here”).

SZ: There are rumors that, for his new movie, Ben will follow Casey around and film him having a breakdown after seeing the box-office numbers for “I'm Still Here.” Seriously, though, it’s always a risk to bring a big commercial movie like "The Town" to Toronto, which tends to be a little more rarefied. But the response was very favorable, and I think the media buzz coming out of the festival helped with its strong opening weekend. “I'm Still Here” played a modest premiere, and that was pretty much all I heard about it.

Continue reading »

Toronto 2010: With 'First Grader,' National Geographic goes back to school

September 20, 2010 |  4:00 pm


One more deal has trickled out of the recently concluded Toronto film Fest, as National Geographic has picked up U.S. rights to "The First Grader," the Telluride and Toronto crowd-pleaser about never being too old too learn.

Justin Chadwick's film tells of an illiterate 84-year-old Kenyan man who, upon hearing the government's promise of a free education, plants himself in a first-grade school and insists he be taught to read.

Oliver Musila Litondo and Naomie Harris star in the film (the latter earning a spot on our breakout actor list out of Toronto), which tickled enough Toronto-goers that it took the runner-up prize at the festival's People's Choice awards.

I didn't talk to Chadwick north of the border, but the filmmaker told my colleague John Horn at Telluride that he endeavored to tell a story both true and inspirational. "The main thing was that it was uplifting," he said of the film (which, incidentally, is based on a Times story). "You have to make something that is relevant these days, and it was a really good story."

Chadwick shot the movie in a Kenyan village that had no electricity and used locals to fill out the cast, in the time-honored tradition of many a world-cinema director.

The acquisition continues a mini-trend for National Geographic, the venerable nature brand that has been expanding into film distribution, of distributing fact-based movies with a global bent. (The company previously picked up the Afghanistan verite documentary "Restrepo.")

By now it's almost hard to run down the Toronto slate and find a movie that wasn't picked up — and thus won't be seen outside the festival. The bigger question may, however, involves the release calendar.

One reason specialized movies such as "Winter's Bone" and "The Kids Are All Right" have done so well this year is because they've had room to breathe on the schedule. Buying the movies is a big step. But with about 15 Toronto movies now likely to get released in the next year — on top of an existing group of independent and specialty pictures — getting these acquisitions a cushy spot on the calendar, and the word-of-mouth that comes with it, may prove the tougher trick.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "The First Grader." Credit: Original Pictures.


True life material proves irresistible at Telluride

Toronto 2010: Rainn Wilson, cinephile favorite (and other sales notes from a festival soon ending)

Toronto 2010: Lionsgate goes down the 'Rabbit Hole'

Toronto 2010: Actors poised for a break-out

Toronto 2010: A festival famous for being about fame

September 20, 2010 |  8:00 am

An attractive and talented young woman is on her way to performance stardom — until her demons, exacerbated by the pressures of the spotlight, threaten to bring her down.

It might sound a lot like the Lindsay Lohan story. But it also describes the arc of Nina, Natalie Portman's mentally tenuous ballerina of "Black Swan," one of several movies at the just-wrapped Toronto Film Festival that was keenly interested in the dangers of a life in the public eye.

The most notorious of these exercises, of course, wasn't really a study in fame at all, as Casey Affleck's Joaquin Phoenix-breakdown film "I'm Still Here" was revealed last week to be a hoax. (Although some might say that two well-known actors trying to pull off such a gambit furnishes its own lesson about celebrity life.)

But one doesn't need to wander into the staged downward spiral of an Oscar nominee to see the fame doctrine at work. "Casino Jack," Kevin Spacey's portrayal of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, shows the irrationally addictive nature of playing a high-stakes game in a high-profile position. "I think Abramoff was on the horse, and he kept the reins going without even being entirely sure of why he was doing it," Spacey said of the character he played.

In both the well-regarded "Easy A" and the sleeper title "It's Kind of a Funny Story," intense public pressure in the most hothouse of environments — high school — leads to unsavory consequences. (In the case of "Easy A," it's deception and a loss of self; with "Funny Story" it's a stint in a psychiatric institution.)

And in one of the biggest awards contenders to emerge from the festival, "The King's Speech," the pressure to perform under the eye of an expectant nation is so intense that it debilitates the stammer-afflicted Duke of York (Colin Firth), forcing him to turn to a royal outsider (Geoffrey Rush) for help.

It's hard to pinpoint why so many of the specialized films being made these days — and if Toronto is a barometer of anything, it's of the independent-film zeitgeist — are preoccupied with the downside of fame. But it's a testament to our ongoing fascination with (and sometimes repulsion for) people who live their lives under a bright hot light that so many of these movies caught on with festival-goers.

A few years ago it was war and politics that seeped into so many Toronto films. Lately, with reality TV and YouTube finding new ways to blur the line between public and private, we're apparently becoming ever-more obsessed with those who live their lives in front of a voyeuristic public.

"Swan" is perhaps the most complex comment on the topic, since it has us rooting for the person wilting under these conditions even as we ask why she's putting herself through them in the first place. It's just a coincidence — but a pointed one nonetheless — that as audiences were transfixed by Nina, many of us were also watching the saga of Lindsay Lohan take another sad turn, feeling torn between sympathy and resentment.

But it was also telling that, amid all these examples of public breakdowns, one of the most warmly received movies at the festival was actually not about the spotlight but its opposite: anonymity. Even as Portman's Nina began to come unglued on a New York stage, James Franco, as stranded canyoneer Aron Ralston in "127 Hours," was finding himself in a dire situation precisely because he lived so far out of sight of any other human being.

Franco's character spends much of the movie silently cursing himself for living so far off the grid that he didn't even tell anyone where he was going before he left. Sometimes, the festival's films seemed to be saying, the only fate worse than being smack in the middle of the limelight is being completely removed from it.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Black Swan. Credit: Fox Searchlight.

[For the Record: An earlier version of this post referred to Portman's character as Lily.]


Toronto 2010: Black Swan gets an academy dry run

Toronto Film Festival: A repeat for Danny Boyle and Darren Aronofsky?

Will Inferno smolder without Lindsay Lohan?

Toronto 2010: With '127 Hours' and 'Black Swan,' a festival enters a time machine

September 19, 2010 |  8:24 pm

The calendar might say 2010, but when it comes to awards, Toronto this year felt a lot like 2008.

That was the year when "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle and "The Wrestler" director Darren Aronofsky came to the Toronto International Film Festival with unknown commodities and emerged with awards-season favorites.

This year, they had new films to premiere -- and did pretty much the same thing. Boyle brought “127 Hours,” the story of trapped climber Aron Ralston (James Franco), and Aronofsky unveiled “Black Swan,” the supernatural-tinged tale of a fragile ballerina (Natalie Portman). Coming in to Toronto, no one knew what to expect from either. Coming out? Each has loads of goodwill and front-runner status, as we explore in a Toronto wrap-up story in Monday's Calendar section.

There's reason for Fox Searchlight, which is distributing both films, to want history to repeat itself. Two years ago, a strong Toronto catapulted “Slumdog” to eight Oscars, including best picture, while "The Wrestler” went on to land two Oscar acting nominations and won six BAFTA, Golden Globe and Independent Spirit awards.

Of course, as many pundits here have been noticing, the directors have, in a way, switched positions. Boyle's movie, like "The Wrestler," is the more intimate study of one man on the margins of society, while Aronofsky, in the manner of "Slumdog," tells a genre-bending story against an exotic backdrop.

But in many other ways the comparisons are unmistakable. Nor is it the only parallel to 2008. That year, a David Fincher movie that didn't come to Toronto hovered in the background of awards season. (Then it was "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; this year it's the Facebook drama "The Social Network").

Meanwhile, with another movie, Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" from the Weinstein Company, vaulting to the top tier, there's another layer of drama. Weinstein and "Speech" will be pitted against "Social Network" and its producer, Scott Rudin. The two outsized personalities famously and publicly tussled over the awards-season status of "The Reader," resulting in Rudin walking away from that picture. The year that happened? Of course. It was 2008.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: James Franco in "127 Hours." Credit: Fox Searchlight.


Toronto 2010: King's Speech, Incendies, among awards winners

Toronto 2010: Black Swan gets an academy dry run

Toronto 2010: Lionsgate goes down the rabbit hole

Toronto 2010: Focus buys Mike Mills' 'Beginners'

September 19, 2010 |  1:27 pm

Focus Features has made its first acquisition of the Toronto International Film Festival, acquiring U.S. and select international rights to Mike Mills' sophomore feature, "Beginners."

The movie, from the director of the indie darling "Thumbsucker," looks at the crucible faced by a man (Ewan McGregor) after his 71-year-old father comes out of the closet. The deal continues a flood of acquisitions at Toronto, which has seen nearly every specialty and independent distributor get in on the action.

Among the films acquired in recent days are the Rainn Wilson-starrer "Super," the Nicole Kidman-led drama "Rabbit Hole" and Robert Redford's period morality play, "The Conspirator."

Focus had come to Toronto with the off-kilter coming-of-age take "It's Kind of a Funny Story," directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden and starring Zach Galifianakis, but had not previously picked up a film.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: 'Beginners.' Credit: Northwood Prods.


Toronto 2010: King's Speech, Incendies among award winners

Toronto 2010: Rainn Wilson, cinephile favorite (and other sales notes from a festival soon ending)

Toronto 2010: Lionsgate goes down the 'Rabbit Hole'

Toronto 2010: 'King's Speech,' 'Incendies' among award winners

September 19, 2010 | 12:53 pm

The Toronto International Film Festival handed out its prizes Sunday, giving its audience award, the Cadillac People's Choice award, to Tom Hooper's period British dramedy "The King's Speech." The City of Toronto award for best Canadian feature went to Denis Villeneuve's French-Canadian immigrant drama "Incendies."

Both films have been picked up for U.S. distribution -- Sony Pictures Classics will distribute "Incendies" and Weinstein Co. will release "Speech." The audience award for "Speech" provides the first boost to a film expected to be a major awards-season player. The Toronto audience selected Justin Chadwick's inspirational drama "First Grader" as the runner-up for the people's choice prize.

The audience's selection for the best Midnight Madness film went to Jim Mickle's vampire road-movie "Stake Land," and runner-up honors in that category went to Michael Howse's screwball comedy "Fubar II." The documentary prize went to Sturla Gunnarsson's "Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie," while the runner-up was Patricio Guzman's "Nostalgia for the Light."

Deborah Chow, meanwhile, was given the award for best Canadian first feature for her performance-minded drama "The High Cost of Living." And Vincent Biron was handed the prize for best Canadian short for his childhood summertime drama "Les Fleurs de l'Age."

The International Federation of Film Critics also awarded its prizes Sunday, giving its Discovery award to Shawn Ku for his American drama "Beautiful Boy" and its special presentations prize to Pierre Thoretton for his French-language art-world film "L'Amour Fou."

The Toronto International Film Festival winds down today.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: The King's Speech. Credit: The Weinstein Company


Toronto 2010: Focus buys Mike Mills' beginners

Toronto 2010: Harvey Weinstein, now on screen

Toronto 2010: Can The King's Speech become the awards movie A Single Man was supposed to be?

Toronto 2010: Rainn Wilson, cinephile favorite (and other sales notes from a festival soon ending)

September 18, 2010 | 11:00 pm

So much for festival obscurities.

The Toronto International Film Festival may be wrapping up this weekend, but it turns out that it won't be the end of the road for many of the films that played here. An eye-popping number of movies have been sold in the last 10 days; roughly a dozen (give or take one or two, depending on how you date a couple of  the acquisitions).

The last 24 hours have brought a trio of deals. "Conspirator" conspirators Lionsgate and Roadside again teamed up, this time to buy the Will Ferrell drama "Everything Must Go." Given how both companies seem to like those actorly pieces -- Lionsgate will try to retail Nicole Kidman and "Rabbit Hole" this fall, and Roadside has this year's art-house best actress favorite with Jennifer Lawrence and "Winter's Bone" -- it's a snug fit.

Meanwhile, Oscilloscope continues to earn its reputation as an aesthete's label. The company run by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch picked up the Western-flavored, art-house atmospherics of Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff," a movie that's been well-received but that's also so aggressively minimalist that it makes the director's previous "Wendy & Lucy" (also with Michelle Williams, and also bought by O-scope) seem like "Transformers."

IFC, for its part, continues its snap-happy ways, taking rights to the star-heavy "Peep World." This one's a particular eye-catcher; the dysfunctional-family comedy with Rainn Wilson, Michael C. Hall and Sarah Silverman is about as far from IFC's art-house wheelhouse as you can get. But clearly the company likes the names involved, and, given the relative paucity of buyers at the fest, no doubt the price.

It's not the first time at this festival that the New York firm has made an uncharacteristic purchase,. The company got things going by buying another Rainn Wilson movie, the "Kick-Ass"-esque  "Super."

All of these sales -- along with Dave Matthews' ATO Pictures buying "Casino Jack," the Weinstein Co. going for "Dirty Girl" and "Submarine," and onward -- point to a bit of a paradox in the indie film world.

The reduction in the number of buyers was supposed to, on its face, lead to a reduction in the amount of sales (and thus movies the rest of us will be able to see in theaters).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the doldrums. A lot of these movies continued to get made, and needed to get distribution. The companies left standing suddenly found themselves with some potentially sweet deals on their hands, so they moved quickly. Three or four years ago, it's not a stretch to say that producers of some of these films would have held out for more money than a Roadside or IFC typically pays, and the films would have sat untouched. Not this year. Fewer distributors, it turns out, doesn't mean fewer distributed movies.

The general strategic wisdom may yet be in question : Does IFC have the infrastructure or marketing chops to make a movie similar to "Kick-Ass" work, when the far larger Lionsgate struggled to do so?

But for the rest of us, this is good news. In the last few years, many movies that didn't have distribution coming in to a festival lacked it on the way out. This year they do, which means we will be able to see them.  Get ready for Redford, Rainn and Reichardt's "Red River."

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Peep World. Credit: Occupant Films


Toronto 2010: Indie movies continue to find homes

Toronto 2010: The Northwest wagon train of Meek's Cutoff

Toronto 2010: Lionsgate goes down the Rabbit Hole

Toronto 2010: 'Aftershock' hits TIFF

September 18, 2010 |  1:36 pm


"Aftershock," an earthquake film released in China this year that quickly became the country's all-time box-office leader for a domestic movie, played as something of an afterthought this weekend in Toronto. 

The movie's release in China was timed to the 34th anniversary of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which claimed more than 240,000 lives, and the film took in more than $76 million. (Hollywood's "Avatar" remains the all-round Chinese box office champ, making more than $200 million in China.) "Aftershock" is also the first Chinese film made in conjunction with IMAX, but it currently has no U.S. distributor.

Directed by Feng Xiaogang, who was unable to attend the festival due to shooting commitments in China, the film is bookended by depictions of the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. The story follows the lives of twins, one boy and one girl, who are separated by the first earthquake and reunited in the aftermath of the second, tracing their personal changes as China moves from the years of the Cultural Revolution to its much more capitalist incarnation today.

"Aftershock" fuses the spectacle of a disaster movie with the tearjerker elements of a more typical Chinese melodrama; a review in the Hollywood Reporter said the film "clearly harbors ambitions of encapsulating China's strenuous road to prosperity through one family's saga over 32 years." Although the film has found a rapt audience in China, even its director has admitted it has faults. In Chinese-language interviews, he has expressed frustrations with restrictions that China's government still places on the content of film.

The film is based to some extent on a novella by Chinese-born, Toronto-based writer Zhang Ling, who introduced the film at Friday's screening. Speaking by phone Saturday morning, she said the screening didn't attract many Chinese Canadians.  "Most of the Chinese people in town, they've already watched the DVD from other sources," she said.

Zhang noted that while the movie is based on the book, the movie is not the book. (Published in 2007, the book does not include the scenes of the second earthquake, which hadn't even happened yet.) 

"I was a little worried about the Chinese element being lost on the audience, but it seemed to go very well," she said. "It was a full house and everybody cried. It went much, much better than I thought."

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: A scene for  from "Aftershock." Credit: Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto 2010: The Northwest wagon train of 'Meek's Cutoff'

September 17, 2010 |  5:42 pm


With its North American premiere at the new Bell Lightbox venue in Toronto, Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" announced itself as one of the major works of recent American independent cinema and quite likely a film that will be talked about for years to come.

Set in 1845 and based on real events, it tells the relatively simple story of a wagon train made up of three families -- the cast includes Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Tommy Nelson and Neal Huff -- being led across what is now Oregon by a trapper and scout named Stephen Meek. Brought to vivid, roaring life by Bruce Greenwood -- resplendent in buckskin and prodigious beard -- Meek takes them on a supposed shortcut, and they are unable to find water. When they capture a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux), the group, with the exception of Meek, reluctantly agree to use their captive as their guide.

Reichardt's two previous films, "Old Joy" and "Wendy and Lucy," both assayed aimless sort-of hipsters in the Pacific Northwest. In a sense, "Meek's Cutoff" is the origin story for those films, the tale of how a certain iconoclastic mind-set made its way to the region. Here, Reichardt's signature airy openness allows the film to be many things at once -- feminist allegory, parable of American imperialism, a plea for open-minded inquiry and simple human kindness. Throughout, Reichardt's filmmaking assures that everything comes across in a manner both emphatically declarative and defiantly subtle.

Reichardt has here both contracted and expanded her style, narrowing her focus onto the most specific and sometimes slightest of incidents to convey her drama, while broadening her thematic horizons. Though much of the film is made up of simple tasks such as the group walking, fixing a wheel or preparing meals, they build an accelerating sense of importance. As the characters, especially the women, emerge from the anonymity of their bonnets and beards to take on personalities, they come to seem less like ciphers and more like people.

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