Saturday, September 15, 2012

Toronto Film Festival's 11 Busy Days - New York Times

TORONTO â€" The Toronto International Film Festival is where towering achievement meets buckets of blood, where the cinematic highbrow jostles alongside the middle and lower realms for 11 crammed, ecstatic, enervating days and nights. The essential industry event of the fall, now in its 37th year, it is the promised land for distributors looking for product, producers hunting for money and journalists looking for the next big films and faces. Despite the red carpet events and what feels like a tighter embrace of the mainstream, the festival continues to feel appreciably less glamorous than Cannes. It’s homier, more relaxed, which is why you may end up seated near David Geffen at dinner one night or find yourself waiting for vegetarian takeout alongside Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.

Indispensable, and overwhelming. One reason is its scale â€" this year the festival pulled together 289 features and 83 shorts from 72 countries â€" which has always made it difficult to get a firm handle on the event. And, unlike Cannes and Berlin, Toronto doesn’t have a competition (or an accompanying sales market), which effectively means that it lacks a recognizable center, a group of films designated as so essential that they’re eligible for the highest honor. Instead, the festival organizes its bounty into sections and under rubrics that seem both obvious (Contemporary World Cinema) and meaningless (Mavericks, Discovery, Vanguard). With so many choices and so little guidance, it can be hard to know which is the right movie to see until you’re sitting in the wrong one.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, as well as its stargazing tendencies, Toronto remains a festival that makes room for gloriously, defiantly off-Hollywood work. Some of its consistently most exciting offerings, for instance, continue to be found in Wavelengths. Although this loyally attended section now includes fiction and documentary features, it largely remains the dominion of avant-garde filmmakers like Ernie Gehr, who introduced two short digital works in person: “Departure” (a witty, partly abstracted journey across a New York landscape from the vantage point of an elevated train) and “Auto-Collider XV” (a delve into pure abstraction that transforms passing vehicles into pulsing, zipping streaks of kaleidoscopic color). Mr. Gehr’s recent work will be featured, like a number of Toronto selections, in the New York Film Festival, which starts on Sept. 28.

Other Wavelengths attractions included several short videos, by turns haunting and playful, from the American artist Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at 22. In one video Ms. Woodman covers herself in a white liquid, lies down and, after a few beats, rises and walks off screen, leaving behind a silhouette that evokes the ghastly shadow images of atom bomb casualties. As the camera holds on the silhouette, you hear a painfully girlish voice exclaim her happiness with how it turned out. Another Wavelengths high point, “View From the Acropolis,” is a gorgeous black-and-white short film from the Dutch artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan that, by juxtaposing ancient ruins with a modern city, becomes a meditation on the transitory.

Toronto is a festival where audiences can find themselves oscillating between the sublime and the ridiculous, between selections like “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s supremely intelligent and controlled inquiry into the cult mind, and “Cloud Atlas,” a megabucks hash of time, space and cinema from the American siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski, and a German confederate, Tom Tykwer. Since “The Master” has opened in the United States, I’ll cut right to “Cloud Atlas,” which is based on the David Mitchell novel and weaves together multiple stories through a lot of airy cosmic convenience and a cavalcade of false noses. Most of these are worn by Tom Hanks, a man of a thousand honkers; some are worn by Halle Berry. Jim Broadbent appears to wear his own schnoz.

Each of the stories, which stretch from the 19th century to the dystopian future, centers on a character who, through the familiar combination of self-actualization and community, transcends barriers of the mind, body and soul. Given Lana Wachowski’s transgendered identity (she was a co-director of “The Matrix” trilogy as Larry Wachowski), this invests “Cloud Atlas” with a touchingly personal undertow that skews a little uncomfortable when Hugo Weaving shows up as a woman who bears a resemblance to Ms. Wachowski. Elsewhere, a notary confronts his racial prejudice, a muckraking journalist speaks truth to power, a slave frees herself to unchain the world. Tonally unsteady, with moments of self-aware comedy and many more presumably unintentionally funny ones, the movie is as deeply sincere as it is dopey. It also, ahem, includes a scene of a novelist tossing a critic off a roof.

If it didn’t clock in at a numbing 163 minutes, “Cloud Atlas” would, however, make a great double bill with one of the festival’s wackiest selections, the comparatively fleet North Korean fantasia “Comrade Kim Goes Flying.” Trumpeted as the first fiction film bankrolled by a Western company that was shot in North Korea, “Comrade Kim” tracks the fantastic travails and features the many smiles of a chipper young female coal miner, who, like a typical Disney animated princess, dreams a very special dream, in this case one of becoming an acrobat. Crammed with wildly smiling men and women and a lot of chatter about revolutionary spirit and the working class, the movie brings to mind one of those chilling cinematic curios from China’s Cultural Revolution, which means that it’s both a kitsch hallucination and a disturbing freakout.

“Comrade Kim Goes Flying” is precisely the kind of movie that makes Toronto such a crucial festival, though it’s also the sort of title that can become lost among the big-ticket attractions. Like a lot of my colleagues, I was anxious to see “The Master,” even though it would be open by the time I returned home. With practice, savvy festivalgoers learn how to strike a balance between high-profile selections and those that have little publicity and marketing muscle. Yet it’s hard not to wish that the festival did more to push under-the-radar titles like Jem Cohen‘s “Museum Hours” into the foreground. A delicate, quiet, sometimes gravely moving symphony of Vienna, the movie traces two strangers â€" an American visitor and an Austrian museum guard â€" who become acquaintances over many conversations and through long, lonely walks captured by this filmmaker’s gimlet eye.

“Museum Hours” is sure to show up again either in other festivals or independent theaters. Among some of the other entries that are definitely headed to the New York Film Festival are two period pieces that meld the political with the profoundly personal: “Barbara,” from the German director Christian Petzold, and “Ginger and Rosa,” from the British filmmaker Sally Potter. Set in East Germany in the 1980s, “Barbara” stars Nina Hoss, at once reserved and emotionally transparent, as a doctor who’s forced to choose between her desire for freedom and the lives of others. Anchored by a sensational Elle Fanning, “Ginger and Rosa,” set in London in the early 1960s, weds a coming-of-age story with a larger generational tale about life in the shadow of a potential nuclear holocaust.

For much of this year’s festival, many more eyes and much more chatter were focused on movies like Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina,” a travesty with a miscast Keira Knightley that is tragic only in its conception and execution, and Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” a wonderment of an unfortunate type that combines many images of young women running through sun-dappled rooms and fields amid musings about Jesus Christ. And then there’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” the latest family comedy from David O. Russell, which takes place on solid terra firma where people eat, drink, work, talk â€" and, this being a David O. Russell encounter session â€" yell at one another as they grapple with many of the same Big Questions as Mr. Malick’s twirling, skipping, running, whispering and endlessly posing avatars.

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