A surprisingly modest Toronto International Film Festival took place in 2006, where the emphasis was placed less on giant stars (though the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt could be seen milling about Yorkville) and more on the films themselves. It meant no sorry-ass Elizabethtowns this year but it almost meant muted buzz, as studios seemed afraid to dump their Oscar hopefuls on the fest, probably fearing they’d die a quick death. And smaller films had some trouble seizing the limelight, though a few deals were struck (Werner Herzog’s pro-America war drama Rescue Dawn was snatched up before it even screened.) Hell, the mood was so sedate that Sean Penn and Russell Crowe were even chipper, the latter happily chatting up fans in the street. And sadly, no Nick Nolte hijinks this year: there no reports of him falling asleep during interviews or dropping cocktail glasses on the ground.
What did fall to the ground were a few duds, one of the most resounding being Steven Zaillian’s much-anticipated All the King’s Men, delayed almost a year, and by the looks of the picture, more time might have been needed. While by no means unwatchable, it remains head-scratching in how it contains the greatest actors working today and nobody makes any notable impression. Besides Sean Penn, who at least makes sense on paper, everyone flounders in the drama, ridiculously updated to 1950s Louisiana. The hucksterism of Willie Stark would have made no difference to the inhabitants of this time, just as this film will make no difference to ours.
The flip side of the coin, however, is Emilio Estevez’s soft-headed Bobby, which despite its also-starry cast, contains very few great actors, with a parade of vapid performers looking as if they’re participants in a politically-fused episode of The Love Boat, with even some of the same results, as Estevez’s script is often planted in TV Land. The ultimate bed-wetting liberal movie, which many will eat up, anyone looking for any form of challenging narrative qualities will have to look elsewhere. You can find them in The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s wobbly but intriguing time-travel fantasy, but they’re distinctly of the opaque, Solaris-style variety. The surest mainstream bomb that will ever be, and that’s a bit sad, as it isn’t very often you see such a daring Hollywood film. I probably couldn’t even tell you what the hell it all means with a gun to my head, but it proves Aronofsky isn’t a director content to rest on his laurels. This one is in many ways the anti-Requiem for a Dream, sometimes deliberately pulling the rug out from the dopey stoners who only watch the latter for its “trippiness.”
Neil Armfield’s heroin drama Candy is like Aronofsky-lite, filled with scenes of needle injections and sweaty drones with pasty skin writhing around in pleasure and pain. But it’s acted with conviction by leads Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, and the movie’s more black comic passages have surprising results, even if you’ve seen this story many times before. Same goes for Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration, a wisp of a satire about a crappy indie shilling itself for the almighty Oscar. Basically a weak version of Guest’s own far-superior 1989 film The Big Picture, it represents continued diminishing returns on his projects, but he is to be commended for one thing: giving Catherine O’Hara yet another chance to prove she’s the best and most resourceful member of his repertory, fighting him every step of the way to create a fully fleshed-out character, and netting most of the laughs too.
Thankfully, O’Hara’s co-star Parker Posey reconnected with another past collaborator, deadpan specialist Hal Hartley, for the festival’s most thrillingly original creation, Fay Grim, Hartley’s sequel to his astonishing 1998 film Henry Fool, which finds Fay (the deliciously ironic Posey) coping with motherhood and espionage as her former flame, the foul, charismatic Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), turns out to be a government pawn, and she finds herself knee-deep in international intrigue, all involving Henry’s notorious notebooks. Virtually everyone from Henry Fool turns up here, and it’s impossible to find a droll indie that’s ever been this much fun; Hartley’s astute observations about America’s international involvement in war (using Fay as his unlikely rook) run circles around the pontificating corniness of virtually every film made that has tried to incorporate the subject lately. Great stuff, a movie that probably needs at least two viewings to fully grasp at all of its considerable ideas.
One viewing seems plenty for Kim Ki-Duk’s Time, one of those lugubrious, mumbo-jumbo offerings critics love to pat themselves on the back for appreciating. A parable about obsessive infatuation and plastic surgery, it never seems to realize that for a parable to work, it needs some root in reality, and when virtually every scene in the film culminates with a callow, screeching lover’s quarrel or various dishware being smashed, you start to wonder what planet these characters reside on. The lovely subtleties of Kim’s past work is nowhere to be found here, just a lot of silliness. (Loved that dirty sculpture park though, more suggestive than anything in the picture.) Another letdown is Joachim Lafosse’s Private Property, a dour, uninteresting French version of House of Sand and Fog where two spoiled siblings (Jeremie and Yannick Renier, real-life brothers) contend with their mother (Isabelle Huppert) on whether to sell their home after her divorce. And can anyone please explain the enduring worship of Huppert? I’ve never seen an actress coast so far on two expressions (both variations on a constipated, hangdog miserableness), and she has exhausted them on dozens of movies now. I can think of about 10 French actresses off the top of my head with more expression in their repertoire than this woman, yet Huppert still seems to eclipse them in notoriety.